Iran/Qatar — The struggle for Syria: Iran-Qatar Ties Come under Stress

The strug­gle by Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion forces to top­ple the Assad regime is sharp­en­ing ten­sions between Iran and Qatar and threat­ens sec­tar­i­an fault lines else­where in North Africa and Mid­dle East. Qatar increas­ing­ly becomes a poten­tial tar­get for retal­i­a­tion should the US and/or Israel attack Iran­ian nuclear facil­i­ties.


RELATIONS BETWEEN Iran and Qatar, once the clos­est across the Per­sian Gulf next to Oman, have dete­ri­o­rat­ed in recent months to the point that Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad can­celled a planned trip to Doha in Novem­ber 2011. Iran has also embarked on a cam­paign of anti-Qatari rhetoric usu­al­ly reserved for its most bit­ter rivals, the Unit­ed States and Sau­di Ara­bia.

For much of the past decade, Qatar’s for­eign pol­i­cy aimed to main­tain good rela­tions with all par­ties by posi­tion­ing itself as a medi­a­tor in mul­ti­ple dis­putes includ­ing Iran’s trou­bled rela­tions with the US and a major­i­ty of Gulf states as well as between rival Pales­tin­ian fac­tions and war­ring fac­tions in Sudan.

Fray­ing close ties

Qatar’s lead how­ev­er in iso­lat­ing inter­na­tion­al­ly the regime of Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s clos­est Arab ally, and arm­ing his oppo­nents has bro­ken the back of tra­di­tion­al­ly close Qatari-Iran­ian rela­tions. It has end­ed years of Iran bend­ing over back­wards to avoid ani­mos­i­ty with Qatar despite the Gulf state’s increas­ing­ly open back­ing of US and Euro­pean efforts to force the Islam­ic repub­lic to halt its nuclear enrich­ment pro­gramme and Sau­di-led efforts to stymie Iran­ian influ­ence in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

Among the small­est of the Gulf states, Qatar is par­tic­u­lar­ly exposed because of its joint own­er­ship with Iran of the South Pars/North Field gas field in the Gulf. Tehran has recent­ly accused Qatar of pil­fer­ing the field and poach­ing Iran­ian skilled per­son­nel to exploit the fact that it is far more advanced than the Islam­ic repub­lic in devel­op­ing its part of the field because of the debil­i­tat­ing impact of the UN sanc­tions. The accu­sa­tion echoes Sad­dam Hussein’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Iraq’s 1990 inva­sion of Kuwait and recalls dis­put­ed occu­pa­tion of three islands belong­ing to the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates.

A poten­tial tar­get for retal­i­a­tion

Iran is unlike­ly to repeat Saddam’s dis­as­trous adven­ture that sparked a US-led allied attack on Iraq. Nonethe­less, the asser­tions raise Qatar’s rank­ing on the list of poten­tial tar­gets for retal­i­a­tion should Israel and/or the US decide to use mil­i­tary force to dis­rupt Iran’s nuclear pro­gramme. They also sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­mine Qatar’s role as a back chan­nel to reduce ten­sion between Iran and its US and Sau­di detrac­tors.

Iran­ian media and polit­i­cal lead­ers have denounced Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khal­i­fa Al Thani and his rul­ing fam­i­ly as ille­git­i­mate. They have accused the emir of being in league with the West and Sau­di Ara­bia to ensure that pro-West­ern regimes emerge from the pop­u­lar revolts sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. They have con­demned him for allow­ing the sale of alco­hol and pork to expa­tri­ates in vio­la­tion of Islam­ic law. The alle­ga­tions echo crit­i­cism of the emir’s poli­cies by con­ser­v­a­tive seg­ments of Qatari soci­ety but are unlike­ly to cur­ry favour with regime oppo­nents in a coun­try that adheres to Sau­di Arabia’s aus­tere Wah­habi inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam, even if it’s in a more lib­er­al fash­ion.

Iran’s stepped up attacks on Qatar under­line the impor­tance it attrib­ut­es to the sur­vival of the Assad regime. The Islam­ic repub­lic had con­sis­tent­ly looked the oth­er way in the past five years as Qatar realigned its pol­i­cy toward Iran in line with US and Sau­di pres­sure on Teheran.

Close Qatari-Iran­ian rela­tions, only rivalled in the Gulf by those between the Islam­ic repub­lic and Oman, date back to Qatar’s refusal to back Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s; its rejec­tion as a mem­ber of the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil of a res­o­lu­tion in 2006 that imposed ini­tial sanc­tions on Iran against its nuclear enrich­ment pro­gramme; and its 2007 invi­ta­tion to Ahmadine­jad to attend an Arab sum­mit in Doha, to the con­ster­na­tion of some of its clos­est Arab allies.

Bend­ing over back­wards

As a result, Iran was will­ing to ignore Qatar’s sub­se­quent sup­port for ever harsh­er UN sanc­tions against Iran as well as its par­tic­i­pa­tion last year in the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Council’s inter­ven­tion in Bahrain to sup­press a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Shi­ite Mus­lim upris­ing against the island’s minor­i­ty Sun­ni Mus­lim rulers. In fact, the two coun­tries went sig­nif­i­cant­ly fur­ther in cement­ing their rela­tions with the con­clu­sion of a defence agree­ment two years ago and a sub­se­quent Iran­ian naval vis­it.

The rever­sal in Iran­ian will­ing­ness to indulge Qatar also under­scores the rise of the country’s hard­lin­ers who last month won a land­slide vic­to­ry in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. The voic­es in Tehran that con­tin­ue to see virtue in Qatar’s abil­i­ty to be a back chan­nel are being drowned out by the anti-Qatari rhetoric.

Iran, squeezed by the dam­ag­ing of Assad as an effec­tive ally and increas­ing US pres­sure as man­i­fest­ed in Pres­i­dent Obama’s deci­sion to sanc­tion buy­ers of Iran­ian crude, appears to be sig­nalling that it sees offence rather than nego­ti­a­tion and com­pro­mise as its best chance to beat ever harsh­er efforts to force it to reverse course.

Mount­ing anti-Qatari rhetoric nar­rows Iran’s abil­i­ty to keep com­mu­ni­ca­tion lines open to its detrac­tors and sharp­ens sec­tar­i­an fault lines in the Mid­dle East and North Africa at a time that Syr­ia is increas­ing­ly becom­ing a proxy war between Sun­ni and Shi­ite Mus­lims in the region.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.