As the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar approaches the one-month mark, the tiny emirate shows no sign of bending to a list of demands that include severing diplomatic ties with Iran.
Qatar has always had a “straightforward position” on Iran, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told a Washington audience on Thursday. “Iran is our neighbor and we have to have a constructive and positive relationship with Iran.”
The minister, who met Tuesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, welcomed continued US and Kuwaiti efforts to resolve the crisis, which was sparked June 4 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly announced that they were closing their land, sea and air connections with Qatar and ordering all Qatari citizens to leave within 14 days. The blockade has forced Qatar Airways to use Iranian airspace and Qataris to rely on Iran, Oman and Turkey for food and other essential commodities.
“We believe we have to have a positive relationship with Iran based on mutual respect and noninterference in internal affairs,” the Qatari minister said, noting that his country shares a huge gas field with Iran.
The Saudis have long had a strained relationship with Iran. Riyadh broke ties after Iranian vigilantes trashed the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest the execution of a Saudi Shi’ite leader in early 2016. Under the leadership of King Salman and his son, Mohammad, the Saudis have sought to isolate Tehran and enlist the Trump administration on its side. But the latest steps have not only pushed Qatar to have a closer relationship with Iran but have alarmed other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as Saudis with familial and other links with Qatar. Indeed, they have put into question the very existence of the GCC, which was formed in large part to provide collective defense against Iran after its 1979 revolution.
The Qatari minister questioned whether the Saudi-initiated steps were “rational,” noting that Iran has not faced a similar GCC blockade and that 96 percent of Iran’s trade with the GCC is with the UAE. Qatar, he said, is number five of the six GCC states in terms of economic dealings with the Islamic Republic. Oman also maintains close economic and diplomatic ties with Iran.
So if isolating Iran was not the main object of the blockade, what was really behind it?
One of the other demands of the Saudi-led group is that Qatar shutter or tone down the Al-Jazeera television network. The channel took the side of Arab masses during the 2011 Arab Spring and has provided a platform for dissidents to criticize regional governments, with the notable exception of Qatar itself. Some of the commentators are extremely inflammatory and have inveighed against the United States and Israel.
However, Al-Jazeera reporters say they have experienced no diminution in support from Qatar since the crisis began. Al-Thani said Qatar would not accept ultimatums from other nations about the channel, which has given the small country enormous influence in the Arab world and beyond.
The Saudis are also insisting that Qatar sever ties with individuals and groups that Riyadh labels terrorists. Al-Thani showed no sign of accepting that demand, saying that Qatar’s “open door policy” is not an endorsement of organizations such as Hamas or the Taliban but provides a venue for conflict resolution. Qatar also gives refuge to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a nemesis of Egypt and the UAE, and to Syrian opposition groups. Al-Thani insisted that Qatar’s record on terrorism financing had improved and was no worse than that of its neighbors.
This self-generated crisis has put the Trump administration into an extremely awkward situation as it tries to mobilize the region against both Sunni and Shi’ite extremism and to conclude a military campaign against ISIS. The crisis began just a few days after President Trump returned from a Middle East trip that he considered extremely successful and that included an anti-terrorism summit with Sunni Muslim leaders – including the Qataris — in Riyadh.
Trump compounded the confusion when, in a tweet, he seemed to side with the Saudis over the Qataris. Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis had to scramble to re-balance the US approach. The US military has 11,000 personnel in Qatar, staffing an air base that is the hub for operations throughout the region including Syria and Afghanistan. Moving the base to the UAE, as that country’s ambassador in Washington has suggested, would be extremely disruptive and costly.
The Trump administration had hoped to use the GCC and Egypt as the central element of an “Arab NATO” that would finish the campaign against ISIS, provide funds to stabilize Syria and Iraq and provide new leverage against Iran. The president also trumpeted Saudi promises to buy billions of dollars worth of additional US weaponry as creating more American jobs. But those sales have now been put on hold by Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who cited the crisis over Qatar.
The US is desperately trying to promote an accommodation that allows all sides to save face.
How this can be done given the apparent intransigence of both Qatars and Saudis remains unclear. What is clear is that in the short run, Iran – long the target of US sanctions and pressure – is benefiting once again from Arab disarray.
Barbara Slavin is director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.