Iran parades missiles and drones while Qatar talks reconciliation

Doha has insisted on making Iran part of Gulf reconciliation, despite the clear warnings issued by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al-Ula summit about Iran’s imminent threat to the region.
Wednesday 20/01/2021
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) welcomes Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival to Iran’s capital Tehran, in January 2020. (AFP)
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) welcomes Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival to Iran’s capital Tehran, in January 2020. (AFP)

Doha – The new call by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani for talks between Arab Gulf states and Iran has raised questions among experts about the rationale for such a call while Tehran continues to proceed with exercises and parades of long-range missiles and drones that threaten Gulf security, and about the logic of Doha attempting to expand the circle of reconciliation to include Iran.

The Qatari foreign minister told Bloomberg TV Tuesday he was “hopeful" that this dialogue "would happen and we still believe this should happen."

He went on to say, “This is also a desire that’s shared by other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries."

“Qatar will facilitate negotiations, if asked by stakeholders, and will support whoever is chosen to do so,” added Sheikh Mohammed.

The Qatari statements were made two weeks after a Gulf reconciliation summit that ended the long-running dispute between Qatar and the Arab quartet (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain) that erupted three and a half years ago.

Gulf affairs analysts believe that the new Qatari call for talks with Iran is not backed by facts on the ground, especially as there have been no public statements by Gulf states expressing a desire to engage in dialogue with Iran, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is directly concerned by Iran.

Analysts instead see a stark contradiction between this call and recent developments, which come as Iran threatens the security of the Gulf and of international shipping, as well as threatening oil exports through an endless show of force. Over the past few days, Iran has conducted a series of exercises to project its determination to pursue its endless arms race and has shown hardly any interest in de-escalation with its neighbours.

On Tuesday, the Iranian army's ground force launched ground exercises on the coast of Makran, south-east of Iran.

On Saturday, Tehran announced the testing of long-range ballistic missiles, aimed at attacking aircraft carriers and warships. Before that, it held exercises that displayed its drones, ratcheting up tensions and sparking renewed concern in the Gulf.

The show of force illustrated by the exercises could not be interpreted as a message solely to Saudi Arabia, a regional power whose interests contradict Iran's. Rather, the message seemed directed at the entire region, including those who defend Iran and its nuclear programme, push for dialogue with it and have opposed outgoing US President Trump's decision to pressure Iran through sanctions.

What analysts have noted since the launch of the Gulf reconciliation initiative is Qatar's insistence on making Iran part of this reconciliation, despite the clear warnings issued by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed at the Al-Ula summit about Iran's imminent threat to the region.

The Saudi crown prince stressed at the Gulf summit the need to "unify our efforts in order to advance our region and confront the challenges that surround us, especially the threats posed by the Iranian regime's nuclear programme, its ballistic missile programme and its destructive projects."

Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have rejected many previous calls from the Iranian regime for dialogue, describing them as mere token gestures that do not indicate any change in Iranian policies, which have long threatened the stability of the region and the security of its countries.

Observers wonder why Doha is motivated to push a reconciliation initiative with Iran at this particular juncture, knowing that it is unlikely to yield any results except maybe reflect Qatar's eagerness to promote an image of a country with international initiatives and diplomatic influence.

Qatar does not hide its desire to reward countries, such as Iran and Turkey, that have stood by it during the boycott by including them in the reconciliation process and trying to bring them advantages.

The announcement of Qatar’s position towards Iran was made just days before US President-elect Joe Biden was to arrive at the White House. Biden has promised to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and to back away from the "maximum pressure" campaign Washington has conducted against Tehran with the backing of Saudi Arabia.

With regard to possible talks between the United States and Iran, the Qatari foreign minister said, "We want the achievement. We want to see this agreement, and we will support whoever leads these negotiations."

It is clear that, through this initiative, Doha is offering its services to the Biden administration as a party capable of exerting regional influence. This echoes its role during the administration of former US President Barack Obama, during which Qatar showed the influence it wielded over militant Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, working to position them to lead the "Arab spring" in tune with Washington's policies of the time.

But the experiment later failed, and the alliance with Islamists caused many problems for Qatar, perhaps most prominently leading to its neighbours' decision to boycott it for more than three years.