Having been under blockade for more than three years by its Gulf neighbours, Doha is in no position to completely sever its ties with Iran yet.
In recent years, and ever since a coalition of Arab countries imposed a blockade on Doha in 2017, Qatar has come to rely on Iran’s goodwill and an ever-increasing economic partnership that has at times dovetailed into political cooperation.
Relations between the two countries have never been warmer, despite the fact that one of the stated objectives of the hilariously named “Anti-Terror Quartet” – composed of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt – was to compel Doha to completely cut links with Tehran.
That aspect of the barricade, like much of the rest of it, backfired spectacularly and pushed the diminutive Gulf state straight into the open arms of Tehran.
It has therefore come as somewhat of a surprise to many observers that Qatar has aligned itself with its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members in backing American calls for an extension of an arms embargo against Iran. While this may smack of ingratitude on behalf of the Qataris, their Iran policy is not one born of idealistic notions of friendship and loyalty, but instead, of pragmatism and survival.
Qatar-Iran relations are limited
When the Saudi and Emirati-led Quartet first imposed a blockade on Qatar, Doha was quick to scramble for assistance, and it was Turkey and Iran who immediately answered the call. Iran opened its airspace and seas to Qatari transportation so they could circumvent the closure of routes imposed on them by their Arab brothers. This also increased freight between the two countries, with Qatar now importing agricultural products and foodstuffs.
As a sign of their developing ties, Qatar restored its ambassador to Iran in 2017. This move came after initially recalling him in 2016 in solidarity with Saudi Arabia whose embassy in Tehran was attacked and torched following Riyadh’s execution of a Shia Islamist cleric who enjoyed close ties to the Iranian regime.
Qatari-linked media, particularly Al Jazeera Arabic, also noticeably eased off from criticising Iranian interference in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and began to openly criticise the Saudi and Emirati role in the Yemen conflict, a role it actively participated in until it withdrew from the Arab coalition in 2017.
At first glance, this would suggest Qatar had reoriented away from its Arab neighbours and had fully embraced Iran. Indeed, a senior Qatari diplomat incensed much of the Arab League in 2017 by describing Iran as an“honourable country” while describing those opposed to Qatar’s foreign policy as “rabid dogs”.
However, a more careful examination of Qatari politics reveals that it behaves in the way that it does in order to survive.
Despite increased cooperation between Doha and Tehran, Iran’s share of Qatar’s $30bn import market was a meagre three percent in 2020, according to Adnan Mousapour, the head of the Iran-Qatar Joint Chamber of Commerce. Just before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in January, and said that bilateral relations needed to deepen because economic cooperation had not reached the appropriate level of political cooperation.
Qatar stuck between the GCC and the US
What is meant by this is clear: Qatar has been conservative about its proximity with Iran, and has been careful not to ensnare itself too deeply into Tehran’s regional and international political agenda.
Doha cannot risk drawing the ire of Washington by contravening its sanctions regime against Tehran, and so bilateral trade has been stymied. Qatar is also home to the largest US military base in the region at Al Udeid and, in addition to a Turkish military installation, heavily relies on the military muscle of bigger powers for its physical security.
Further, and while there can be no doubt that Qatar has been winning the public relations war against the countries blockading them, it is an inescapable reality that these countries will forever be Qatar’s neighbours and will always share bonds of kinship, culture, and religion - something that is lacking in its relationship with Iran.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic appears to be doing its best to alienate itself from global powers by breaching parts of the Iran nuclear deal that is already barely on life support, and it is gradually and assuredly buckling under the Trump administration’s ’maximum pressure’ sanctions campaign.
From a pragmatic perspective, and whatever gratitude the Qatari Emir expressed to Khamenei in January, he will be alive to the fact that the geopolitics of the Gulf can easily be influenced by outside forces.
He will also be fully aware that the presence of the United States, as well as the growing weakness of Iran due to the sanctions and pandemic, risks putting Qatar in a compromised position.
Finally, the Emir completely understands how it is in his country’s best interests to find a way to mend fences with Arab neighbours, as well as to make the whole GCC house return to favourable terms. By doing so Doha will be less dependent on foreign powers.
More cynically, it could simply be the case that Qatar is playing both sides of the divide so that it benefits from all outcomes. If the embargo extension proposed by the US at the UN is accepted, then Qatar would have shown solidarity with the GCC. This will only help it mend fences.
On the other hand, should the US proposal not pass, Doha can say it signed off on the extension as part of the GCC knowing it would fail, and keep diplomacy and relations with Tehran alive and kicking.
Whatever the case, understanding Qatar’s vulnerabilities as a small nation will go some way in explaining its relations with Iran. Its position will be carefully calibrated to maximise its relations while minimising the risk of blowback from association with Tehran.
Should Qatar’s Arab rivals wish to isolate Iran further, it would be a simple matter of easing the blockade on the condition that Doha orients its Iran policy in lockstep with the Quartet. Considering Qatar’s past of being the most vocal Gulf Arab critic of Iran’s expansionist agenda, that should not be too hard a pitch to sell, something even the Saudis and their allies should be able to manage.
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