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

Syn­op­sis
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.

Com­men­tary

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.

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →