Iran: Why has Qatar Approached Us?

Michael Rubin

On 5 June 2017, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar citing the Persian Gulf state’s support for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. While Qatar’s outreach to Iran caused consternation in many Arab capitals, it also created some confusion in Iran. In this excerpted editorial from the Iranian newspaper Khorasan, editorialist Hamid Rahimpour, a political hardliner, explores the reasons why Qatar sought reconciliation with Iran.

Rahimpour suggests that fear of Saudi Arabia drove recent Qatari policy and emphasizes the importance of the Qatari-Saudi border dispute. While this conflict is real, it is not sufficient to explain recent rapprochement between Doha and Tehran. The Saudi-Qatari dispute is decades-old and there is no reason why it should suddenly now become an overriding concern. In addition, Saudi Arabia has border disputes with the United Arab Emirates and Oman, but neither Abu Dhabi nor Muscat turned toward Tehran out of fear of or pique toward Saudi Arabia.

Qatar’s relationship with Iran is part of a broader Qatari strategy. Qatar has long sought to maintain diplomatic neutrality: It hosts offices for Hamas, a US-designated terrorist group, while also maintaining quiet, informal relations with Israel. It hosts the Al-Udeid Air Base, used by US Central Command as its regional headquarters, even while hosting an office for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban call their would-be entity. Even before its current outreach, Qatar had cooperative working relations with Iran, with which it shares a submarine gas field in the Persian Gulf—called the North Dome field by Qatar and the South Pars field by Iran.

While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is upset by alleged recent Qatari official meetings with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the broader concern might be a huge ransom—reputed to be $1 billion—which the Qatari government allegedly paid to Iran to win the release of a Qatari hunting party taken hostage of a Shi’ite criminal gang in southern Iraq where pro-Iranian militias hold sway. After all, most GCC leaders are more upset with the Sultanate of Oman’s outreach to and warm relationship with Iran.

Whatever annoyance GCC officials might have with Qatar’s Iran outreach, that Iranian authorities would see that as greater than the long-standing animosity in Arab capitals caused by Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, however, suggests some delusion in Iranian circles as they project their own animosity toward Saudi Arabia onto other states. This may then reflect how the Islamic Republic’s growing antipathy toward Saudi Arabia has become the lens through which Iranian analysts filter other events in the region.

* Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers.

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