It was inevitable that US policy toward Syria and Iran would have a discernible knock-on effect in the Gulf Arab states. Whatever truth there is to the argument that the Obama administration is seeking some form of détente, if not full-on rapprochement with Iran, the khaleejis have already begun making preparations for such a contingency.
Saudi Arabia, as I’ve noted, has tried to bolster its counterterrorism credibility by blacklisting Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a schismatic Zarqawist faction, while also lobbying for greater US support for the more nationalistic elements of the anti-Assad opposition. Where this charm offensive fails – as it seems to have done in persuading Obama to allow the provision of surface-to-air missiles to the rebels – then constant reminders from the Saudi security and intelligence apparatus about the folly of America’s diplomatic engagement with Tehran are to be leaked to the Western press, underscoring the kingdom’s deep discomfort with the path the administration has chosen.
But less examined is how a perceived US realignment with Iran has affected the Sunni giant’s main regional rival, Qatar. True to form, this tiny, gas-rich littoral state has adopted a more accommodationist strategy by cautiously welcoming the Islamic Republic in from the cold.
Indeed, there has been a flurry of diplomatic traffic and activity between Qatar and Iran in recent months, both preceding the P5+1 interim agreement which secured Iran sanctions relief in exchange for a slowdown of its nuclear program, and following that deal, upon which the traffic and activity has only accelerated. In October, weeks before the deal was certified in Geneva, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani telephoned Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, wishing him a happy Eid al-Adha, inviting him to Tehran for a state visit, and reaffirming both countries’ commitment to “fighting extremism, violence, and regional terrorism.” (This favored Iranian mantra refers only to the Sunni variety of extremism, violence, and regional terrorism, but not to the manifold Shiite analogues embodied in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, al-Abbas Brigades, and so on, all of which are now seen as necessary praetorians for maintaining “stability” in Syria.) That same month, Doha and Tehran announced the establishment of a joint trade council, with the head of Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce Yahya Ale Eshaq, declaring: “We believe that the conditions are all set for the further expansion of economic ties between the two countries.”
In November, one of the top guests invited to attend Qatar’s Ajyal Youth Film Festival was Iran’s Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati, who was photographed alongside Hamad bin Abdul Aziz, the master of ceremonies and Qatar’s Minister of Culture, Arts, and Heritage. Rouhani also announced in early December that he’d like to increase production from the enormous South Pars gas field, which Iran jointly shares with Qatar, leaving no room to wonder as to the timing of this bilateral commercial boost. “[P]olitical and international measures taken by the government,” Rouhani said, “has [sic] increased the space for economic activities in the country.” Then, on March 15 – the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising no less – the inaugural meeting of the Tehran-Doha Joint Political Committee took place, consisting of foreign ministry officials from either country who have agreed to consult each other every three months, in alternating capitals.
Not coincidentally, over the past six months, Iran’s foreign minister and point-man on nuclear negotiations with the West, Mohammed Javad Zarif, has met repeatedly with his Qatari counterpart, Mohammad Al Attiyeh, in New York, Doha, and Tehran. These were not meaningless tête-à-têtes. “We have agreed to create a joint economic free zone between the two countries in a bid to pave the way for greater transactions between Tehran and Doha and help the two sides’ private sectors,” Zarif told Iranian state news after his meeting with Attiyeh in Tehran in late February.
Furthermore, Qatar’s recent tensions with other Gulf Cooperation Council states may have also pushed it closer to Iran. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates all pulled their ambassadors from Doha a month ago over the latter's hosting of the noxious cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi and its continued patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood, which other Gulf countries consider an “interfering” threat to their own political equilibrium. “There’s been a great deal of temptation for the emir to look for regional wins where he can get them,” David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me. “Qatar is perhaps willing to up its engagement with actors in Syria, Tehran, and Beirut which are part of the so-called ‘axis of resistance.’”
It certainly is the case that the pro-“resistance” media have eagerly taken up this warming of relations between the two neighbors. Al-Akhbar was generally pleased that Qatar brokered the release in mid-March of a dozen Lebanese nuns who had been captured by Nusra in the ancient Christian Syrian town of Maaloula. (Qatar was also the regional power responsible for overseeing the prisoner swap of IRGC agents for Free Syrian Army rebels over a year ago.) “The Qatari foreign minister went to Iran to offer a comprehensive deal that is currently under consideration,” Al-Akhbar’s Sami Kleib wrote. “The Qatari position on Assad remains rigid, but everything is now up for discussion.”
No doubt the clearest example of cooperation has been Qatar and Iran's resurrected mutual support for Hamas, an effort which seems to have been undertaken by the Sunni-majority nation. According to Al-Monitor (an outlet which appears to favor Obama’s outreach to Iran), sources “close to Hamas’ political leadership” have confirmed that Doha and Tehran agree on the need to prop up the almost bankrupt Islamist party in Gaza, which had lost Iranian support for its backing of the Syrian uprising in 2011. (Zarif has maintained for two years that this break was Hamas' decision and that Iran never wanted to end its subvention, regardless of its disagreement over Syria.) Al-Monitor reported that Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah traveled to Tehran to mediate a reconciliation between Hamas’ once-and-future patron.
For Michael Stephens, the deputy director of RUSI Qatar, a think tank, Doha’s latest moves reflect both its intrinsic military limitations and the diplomatic promiscuity a small player with an outsized influence often resorts to. Qatar, after all, talks to Israel while helping the latter’s primary foe in the Occupied Territories. It hosts a large American military garrison on its soil while churning out anti-American news stories via its Al Jazeera TV channel. Cozying up to Tehran was therefore always to be expected, particularly now that Iran’s pariah status is being steadily lifted through the rescission of the international sanctions regime. “The Qataris don’t think about the region the same way the Saudis do,” Stephens told me, “and they have no need to police it the way they do, either.” Doha prefers instead to creatively link disparate diplomatic initiatives as a way of furthering its own soft power.
“They were working on finding alternative accommodations with [Hamas politburo chief Khaled] Meshaal and using this as a way of re-engaging with people in the region,” Stephens said. However, this perestroika will not extend beyond the political and economic spheres. “You can 100% rule out military cooperation. There is none. The Qatari armed forces are very suspicious of the Iranians; they don’t view Iran as a friend but as a competitor.” Even still, Qatar needs to engage with Iran on what Stephens calls “managing mutual security.” “It’d be like Hong Kong saying to China, ‘We’re not interested in dealing with you.’ They can’t. Similarly, the Qataris have to deal with Iran given their population size and the regional balance of power.”
Finally, Qatar’s backing of the Syrian insurgency – surely a source of aggravation to Iran – may not weigh heavily as it did six months ago, owing less to Tehran’s bully-boy tactics and more to Washington’s. Rumors have swirled in the Western and Arabic presses of open state sponsorship for Nusra, with one state always identified. “It was very obvious that when Nusra was viewed as more of an aggressive player – nowadays there’s a consensus view that they are the sensible psychos – the Qataris were definitely flirting with the idea of working with them,” Stephens said. “There is no doubt about it. But how they were doing so was complex.”
It worked like this. Qatar would openly finance and support leading “mainstream” Islamist or Salafist brigades in Syria such as Suqoor al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Ahrar al-Sham – all of which would later join the jointly Saudi- and Qatari-backed Islamic Front – knowing full well that some of the money and weapons would wind up in Nusra’s possession. “They didn’t do much to stop it and they pleaded ignorance when they were accused of it,” Stephens said. Moreover, their accusers weren’t just US and British intelligence, but also the Saudi kind, which has lately assumed more and more control over the armed factions on the ground and is today the sole power behind the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, an increasingly influential consortium of rebels, which will sooner or later receive the backing of the United States.
The rise of Riyadh during the past few months as the main underwriter and more trusted Western liaison of the Syria insurgency has no doubt also created more latitude for Doha’s not-so-quiet diplomacy with Iran. Or, as Stephens put it, “The Qataris were shown the red card” on supporting whomever they liked in Syria. This made it easier for them to see a green light on parlaying with the mullahs.