Qatar’s Iran leap will lose it long-term lever­age

Arab News - - OPINION - MANUEL ALMEIDA | SPE­CIAL TO ARAB NEWS

Tehran is very ca­pa­ble of plac­ing Doha in an un­com­fort­able po­si­tion, should it choose to do so.

IRA­NIAN For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif’s visit to Qatar last week, his sec­ond this year, was the lat­est in a se­ries of diplo­matic moves that brought Doha and Tehran closer in re­cent months. In the highly trans­ac­tional sphere of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics, there are hardly points of no-re­turn. Yet the lat­est Qatari leap to­ward Tehran could prove fur­ther down the line to have gone a step too far, not only from the per­spec­tive of the three Gulf states that cut ties with Doha, but mainly when it comes to Qatar’s own loss of lever­age.

By choice or sheer ne­ces­sity, rap­proche­ments that looked un­likely un­til they hap­pened have been quite com­mon in re­cent years between lo­cal play­ers and with out­side pow­ers as well — a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of the Mid­dle East’s con­stant state of tur­moil.

Only last week, King Sal­man’s his­toric visit to Rus­sia cul­mi­nated the process of warm­ing ties and align­ing in­ter­ests with Moscow. Two years ago, Riyadh ap­pointed a res­i­dent am­bas­sador to Bagh­dad, the first since Sad­dam Hus­sein’s in­va­sion of Kuwait in 1990. This year, Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Adel Al-Jubeir paid a land­mark visit to the Iraqi cap­i­tal.

The col­lapse of Turkey’s for­eign pol­icy — grounded in a deeply ide­o­log­i­cal, neo-Ot­toman out­look as en­vi­sioned by its chief ar­chi­tect, for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter and Prime Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu — also opened the door to fresh diplo­matic starts. Af­ter a six-year rift go­ing back to the Gaza flotilla in­ci­dent in 2010, Turkey and Is­rael reached a deal to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions in June last year.

Mount­ing ten­sions between Ankara and Moscow over Syria’s con­flict, de­spite their sig­nif­i­cant trade ties, peaked af­ter Turkey shot down a Rus­sian mil­i­tary plane over Turk­ish airspace. Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan even­tu­ally is­sued an apol­ogy, call­ing Rus­sia a “friend and strate­gic part­ner.” To­day, Turkey acts as a close part­ner of Rus­sia, while its re­la­tions with the US have hit an all-time low.

Since the erup­tion in June of the on­go­ing diplo­matic cri­sis cen­tered on Qatar, Doha has re­stored full diplo­matic re­la­tions with Tehran. Among other Qatari vi­o­la­tions of the ac­cord signed by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Ha­mad Al-Thani in 2013 are non-in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of fel­low Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) mem­bers and sup­port for ex­trem­ist groups. Th­ese are the same kinds of threat­en­ing ac­tiv­i­ties most of Iran’s neigh­bors ac­cuse Tehran of.

Early last year, Qatar re­called its am­bas­sador in Tehran af­ter the at­tacks on the Saudi diplo­matic mis­sions in Iran. But fol­low­ing sanc­tions im­posed by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE, Doha re­stored full diplo­matic ties with Tehran in Au­gust. A Qatari For­eign Min­istry state­ment read: “The state of Qatar ex­pressed its as­pi­ra­tion to strengthen bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran in all fields.”

That Qatar and Iran share the North Field, a huge off­shore nat­u­ral gas field that is the key source of Qatar’s mas­sive wealth, is suf­fi­cient rea­son to main­tain a ba­sic work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Tehran.

Yet un­der the pre­vi­ous emir, Sheikh Ha­mad bin Khal­ifa Al-Thani, bi­lat­eral re­la­tions de­vel­oped sig­nif­i­cantly. Un­der his suc­ces­sor Sheikh Tamim, there was the prom­ise of a more bal­anced for­eign pol­icy. But in 2016, that did not pre­vent Qatar from vot­ing against UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil 1969, which called on Iran to stop its ura­nium en­rich­ment pro­gram. Qatar was the only coun­cil mem­ber that voted against it.

De­spite its GCC mem­ber­ship, the small emi­rate and Iran have in com­mon a highly pop­ulist and dis­rup­tive for­eign pol­icy, of­ten based on steer­ing trou­ble abroad by sup­port­ing ex­trem­ist groups of all sorts. Cru­cially, this is what dis­tin­guishes Qatar from Oman, which has tried to main­tain an equidis­tant pol­icy to­ward Saudi Ara­bia and Iran.

The talks between the pro-Is­lamist gov­ern­ments of Qatar and Turkey on the es­tab­lish­ment of a Turk­ish mil­i­tary base in Qatar, which started long be­fore the cur­rent diplo­matic cri­sis, were al­ready an­other sign of Doha’s sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences with its Arab Gulf neigh­bors. In June, Er­do­gan, who calls Sheikh Tamim “brother,” fast­tracked a bill through Par­lia­ment to al­low Turk­ish troops to be de­ployed in Qatar.

Turkey’s grow­ing mil­i­tary um­brella might of­fer some as­sur­ances to Doha, but there is plenty the far more pow­er­ful Ira­nian regime can do to place Qatar in an un­com­fort­able po­si­tion. They are still fight­ing a proxy war in Syria, their in­ter­ests do not align on ev­ery is­sue, and there will be other crises that will se­ri­ously test the re­la­tion­ship.

One of th­ese crises could be the ris­ing ten­sions between the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Is­rael on the one hand, and Tehran, Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, and the var­i­ous ter­ror­ist groups and mili­tias that Iran backs across the re­gion on the other. The US mil­i­tary base of Al-Udeid, south­west of Doha, could turn from a se­cu­rity guar­an­tee to a prob­lem for Qatar’s leap to­ward Tehran.

QDr. Manuel Almeida is a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and con­sul­tant fo­cus­ing on the Mid­dle East. He is the for­mer edi­tor of the English on­line edi­tion of Asharq Al-Awsat news­pa­per, and holds a Ph.D. in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence Twit­ter: @_ManuelAlmeida

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