Qatar crisis creates a headache for the United States

Nearly two months in, the diplomatic crisis between the Arab Gulf states is growing ever more complicated. The July 16 Washington Post report that cites unnamed US intelligence officials as claiming that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) precipitated the diplomatic row with Qatar by hacking Qatari state-run news outlets and attributing false statements to the tiny emirate’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is, if true, troubling for several reasons.

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An official response to ISIS’ deadly twin attacks in Tehran on June 7, Iran’s medium-range missile strikes were a clear message not only to many in the region, but to Washington as well, that the Islamic Republic will not hesitate to respond decisively to forces hostile toward Iran.

Iran’s strikes against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate on June 18 marked the Islamic Republic’s first missile strikes in a foreign country since Tehran attacked the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a militant political organization, in Diyala, Iraq, with ballistic missiles in 2001.

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Donald J. Trump and Mohammed bin Salman have a similar outlook when it comes to Iran. Both see the Islamic Republic as a threat that needs to be contained. What then does the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, to the role of crown prince of Saudi Arabia mean for the Sunni kingdom’s relationship with Shi’ite Iran?

“Nothing good,” said F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

“I do see the likelihood of an American-Iranian confrontation, whether it is in Syria, whether it is on the water in the Gulf, whether it is in Iraq after the campaign in Mosul is concluded,” said Gause. The US administration, including President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, “came into office with a view that Iran was the major issue in the region,” he noted.

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Since the 1979 hostage crisis and the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, US-Iran relations have been largely hostile and stagnant. The exception is the period during the negotiations that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Sanctions played a role in convincing Iran to accept stringent curbs on its nuclear program. But nearly 40 years of US sanctions and confrontational policies have not brought the United States and Iran closer into alignment on many other key issues. 

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 The 2017 Iranian presidential election could be mainly summarized by the many images of Iranians lining up outside the polling stations and the overall enthusiasm and fervor sparked by the short yet dynamic campaign and re-election of the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani. Hassan Rouhani won a second term with fifty-seven percent of the votes, almost seven points higher than during his first election, in an unprecedented turnout of seventy percent.

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Iranians celebrated in the streets of their cities this past weekend out of relief that the most capable candidate on offer won the presidential election held on May 19.

Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani’s solid victory over a younger and more hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, was a triumph of competence over ideology and of openness over isolationism.

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During US President Donald J. Trump’s upcoming trip to Riyadh, Gulf leaders will seek to portray themselves as capable partners for the United States in countering common threats, namely violent extremism and Iranian aggression, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

Throughout the summit, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will “want to make it clear that they have become more capable partners,” said Bilal Y. Saab, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He said they will try to communicate to Trump: “Rely on us more. Trust us more. We are happy to devote sufficient resources to common fights including counter-terrorism and countering Iran.”

“I think they will push that message more aggressively now, because this is what Trump wants to hear,” Saab added. Regarded as a “transactional” president and self-proclaimed dealmaker, Trump emphasized throughout his campaign that the fight against terrorism would top his foreign policy agenda. “He said during the campaign that he is looking for partners who are more willing to contribute, share the burden, and spend more money on defense,” said Saab, adding that US partners in the Gulf will seek to meet this need.

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The outcome of its presidential election on May 19 will determine whether Iran is the next nation to succumb to a populist candidate seeking to upend the normative world order, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.   

“This is going to be the next test in that wave,” following the election of US President Donald J. Trump and the defeat of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, said Amir Handjani, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Iran’s upcoming election will have tremendous implications for both the future of Iran and the US-Iranian relationship. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, widely recognized as a moderate proponent of a rules-based world order, will face off against conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, generally considered the preferred candidate of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Emmanuel Macron’s election as the next president of France is positive news for Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Among the four leading candidates in the presidential election, Riyadh and Doha most favored Macron, whose foreign policy positions are pro-European Union (EU) and who is expected to continue Paris’ overall approach to international affairs. More specifically, Macron’s victory will likely preserve France’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have deepened under outgoing French President François Hollande and his predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy.

A victory for Macron’s rival, far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, would have been bad news for France-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations. Her foreign policy agenda entailed aligning Paris more closely with Moscow on regional issues, chiefly Syria, where Russia and the GCC’s interests have clashed. Le Pen also frequently accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting the Islamic State in the Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda. A Le Pen victory could have severely reversed the growth of French-GCC relations.

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The proposal for de-escalation zones in Syria, which will enter into force at midnight on May 5, is unlikely to be effective in the long term, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“Maybe” the agreement will temporarily have a demonstrable effect on lowering the number of civilian deaths in Syria, said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, speaking in an interview with the New Atlanticist. However, he added, “I don’t see the thing lasting.”

The de-escalation zones, a Russian and Turkish-led initiative, backed by Iran, were agreed upon in a deal signed on May 9 as part of the ongoing United Nations Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, few details regarding implementation and monitoring of these zones have been released. The United States is not party to the agreement, and has expressed initial skepticism.

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