Qatar’s Iran connection a factor in the Gulf crisis
Beirut- Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the 37-year-old emir of Qatar, is no fool. He realises that neither his country’s size nor its geography will allow it to win any economic or political wars with Saudi Arabia. With that in mind, observers expected him to climb down three weeks ago, long before the present crisis climaxed with Riyadh.
Instead, Sheikh Tamim buckled up to the Saudis, speaking politely yet defiantly, refusing to abide by their long list of demands, which include severing relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran while closing Doha’s television channel Al Jazeera.
Someone is apparently whispering into Sheikh Tamim’s ear, telling him to stand up to the Saudis, while giving assurances that he will neither be toppled nor defeated. The Jeddah-based daily Okaz reported that someone is General Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Soleimani met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Baghdad hours after US President Donald Trump wrapped up a visit to Saudi Arabia. The story was probably a tip-off from Saudi intelligence, which often leaks news through Okaz, a reliable newspaper in Saudi Arabia.
Sharing its maritime border with Iran, Qatar has always been friends with Tehran, even before the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Qataris stood neutral during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, refusing to side with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his deadly conflict with Tehran.
When Iraq attacked Iranian oil fields in 1983, coming dangerously close to the Qatari coast, Doha erected barriers to avoid getting dragged into the conflict and did not say a word that was critical of Tehran. After the war ended, the Iranians stood up for Qatar during an island dispute with Bahrain and, more recently, Doha refrained from accusing Iran of interfering in Bahraini domestic affairs and encouraging a Shia uprising against Saudi-backed rulers in January 2011.
The bilateral relationship has always been motivated by common economic interests, such as joint ownership of the largest independent gas reservoir in the world, which since the early 1990s has made Qatar one of the richest countries on the planet. Qatar owns 13% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves and, from its section of the field, produces 650 million cubic metres of gas per day, while Iran cranks out 575 million cubic metres per day from the same gas field. That in itself is enough to prevent the Qataris from picking a fight with Iran to please Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani made Tehran his first foreign visit destination after assuming power in a bloodless coup in 1995. Since its inception in the mid-1990s, Al Jazeera has never been critical of Iran’s foreign policy or human rights record and it has never meddled with Iranian domestic affairs.
Before the outbreak of the Syria war in 2011, Sheikh Hamad had been exceptionally close to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. When violence erupted in Beirut in May 2008, he played the arbitrator, inviting all Lebanese factions to sign the Doha Agreement, ending the gridlock and facilitating the election of Hezbollah’s ally at the time, General Michel Suleiman, to the Lebanese presidency.
Qatar also pledged to rebuild four Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese towns destroyed by the Israelis in 2006, prompting the military group to raise signs that read: “Thank you, Qatar.”
In the summer of 2010, Sheikh Hamad visited southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, and was greeted and escorted with grand festivity by Hezbollah MPs and cabinet ministers. That same year, Qatar and Iran signed agreements on intelligence sharing, security cooperation and joint training fields for their armies.
For obvious reasons, the Iranians are getting a good laugh out of the Saudi-Qatari rift, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condescendingly tweeting on June 5: “Neighbours are permanent; geography cannot be changed. Coercion is never a solution. Dialogue is imperative, especially during blessed Ramadan.”
Clearly, he wanted to position himself as a guardian of Qatari interests while lecturing Saudi Arabia on “good neighbour” politics — words that enraged the rulers of Riyadh. Adding insult to injury, Iranian media trumpeted a telephone call between Sheikh Hamad and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, congratulating the latter on his recent re-election.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had proposed an “Islamic NATO,” which was supposed to see the light after the Riyadh Summit. It was aimed at isolating Iran in the Arab and Muslim worlds but it is now dead. The Iranians are fanning conflict and sowing discord to deepen tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and within the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The more Qatar is lectured on what to do with its foreign and domestic affairs and the more GCC countries impose sanctions and blockades on its borders, flights and shipping, the closer Doha will cuddle up to the Iranians.
Iran has sent 600 tonnes of food to Qatar, aimed at defying a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia on its land borders and its maritime one ordered by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Politically this means a return to the pre- 2011 status of Qatar, firmly allied with Iran and Syria and with non-state players such as Hamas and Hezbollah, desperately trying to carve out a role for itself within the Persian Gulf.