Iran vs US: Can Qatar help prevent war in the Gulf?

Qatar's role as a regional mediator, recognized by both the US and Iran, could potentially lead to the de-escalation of conflict in the region while it continues to be blockaded by its former Gulf allies.

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Qatar’s role as a third-party mediator in the on-going Iran-US tussle is being widely acknowledged by the international media and regional observers. Amid the continuing UAE-Saudi-led blockade on the tiny Gulf state US President, Donald Trump’s invitation to host the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hammad bin Khalifa Al Thani, at the White House next month and the telephone conversation between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Qatar’s Emir on regional stability on Wednesday points towards Qatar’s noteworthiness as a responsible player in regional and international politics.

Qatar continues to endure a protracted economic blockade and the political boycott by its neighboring Gulf States, dominated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Four GCC states – including Egypt and Bahrain – are part of this blockade over alleged support to terrorism; an accusation Qatar has consistently denied. However, despite the GCC’s  blockade since June 2017, Qatar’s economy has done well, and it is active on the international front of diplomacy; it is now being also seen as a steadfast source for cooperation and mitigation to prevent war between the two arch-rivals, US and Iran.

Trump to Host Qatari Emir Next Month

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Qatari Emir, is expected to meet the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump on July 9, according to White House officials. The upcoming meeting in Washington is said to be focusing on the regional politics of the gulf, primarily based on the security and counterterrorism cooperation between the two states according to the announcement made on Friday.

The statement by al-Assaf was a response to a question pertinent to Qatar’s presence at the summit amid blockade. “Qatar participated in previous summits, so it is not new”, he disclosed while answering the question.

Although the announcement has come at a time when both the US and Iran have locked horns in pursuit of attaining their national and regional interests; and while Qatar continues to be under a stringent blockade imposed by the Saudi-dominated gulf alliance, the White House has maintained that the meeting between the two premiers is strictly a bilateral arrangement. The White House, in its announcement statement, said:

“The visit will build on the long-standing partnership between the United States and Qatar and further strengthen our already substantial economic and security ties,”

Despite a strong US-Saudi alliance, the US has remained a key ally of Qatar primarily due to its security and strategic interests in the region. United States moved its bases out of Saudi Arabia after 9/11 and repositioned itself in Qatar. Currently, Qatar hosts the region’s largest US military base at Al Udeid. In addition there is another military base and a headquarter of the US Central Command that supervises all major operations of the US in the Middle East.

Doha was an important nerve center for the US forces during the operations in Iraq in 2003 and in recent years Qatari airfare has participated, along with other Arab nations, in air strikes inside Syria. Hence Qatar’s significance cannot be overemphasized, considering all the strategic cooperation that Qatar has provided to the US in a complex geo-strategic environment.

Read more: Qatar distances itself from the outcome of the Mecca conference

The Pentagon has, on numerous occasions, praised Qatar’s “enduring commitment towards regional security”. Qatar is said to have adopted an independent foreign policy since the 2017 blockade that aimed at isolating the tiny Gulf state. However, the attempts to isolate Qatar, from regional trade, now seem to have backfired since its economy has survived and done well despite these sanctions.

In December 2018, Qatar announced leaving OPEC; it cited the reason that it has now become mainly a gas exporter, which is true since Qatar in last few years has emerged as the largest gas exporter in the world. But leaving OPEC also signals greater autonomy from the influence of Saudi Arabia.

Qatar’s robust diplomacy ontinues

Doha has also maintained a robust international diplomacy, its earlier investments into Al Jazeera channels has paid well as it gives it a capacity to bring its point of view to the world. It recently managed to defeat the Saudi attempts to expand the scope of FIFA-2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams. Qatar won the rights for World Cup in 2010 when Moscow won for the rights for 2018 World Cup.

But after hostilities with Qatar, Saudis wanted FIFA to add other venues outside Doha but despite hectic lobbying by the Saudis these efforts fell flat and FIFA world cup will only be played in Doha in December 2022. Now Qatar has successfully presented itself as a potential mediator between Washington and Iran. This too is part of Qatar’s long standing practice of hedging its foreign policy.

It maintains working relations with Israel, but also provides aid to Palestinian groups including Israel’s arch-enemy: Hammas; it maintains largest US basses in the region yet has a relationship of trust with Iran. As a result of Qatar’s cooperation, the US has consistently ensured the inclusion of Qatar on various regional platforms.

Last month, the Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, had reportedly visited Iran in a bid to deescalate the growing tensions between the US and Iran. According to Al-Jazeera, Sheikh Mohammed had met his Iranian counterpart, Javed Zarif, to talk about the growing rage since the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Deal in 2018.

In addition to that, Qatar’s inclusion by the US to attend the 25-26 June conference in Bahrain, another party to Saudi-led blockade on Qatar signifies US efforts to bring Qatar into mainstream politics beyond the gulf. The Bahrain conference is an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative lead by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump.

The Gulf summit statement talked about a unified Gulf, but where is it amid the continuation of Qatar’s blockade? Al Thani questioned while rejecting the final proceedings of the meetings.

Qatar should return to “right path” 

However, despite the attempts to materialize Qatar’s regional role, the erstwhile Gulf allies seem adamant on keeping Qatar at an arm’s length. During the emergency meetings in Mecca last week, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Ibrahim al-Assaf, in a statement to the press conference said that the solution of the Gulf crisis could only be made possible if Qatar returned to the “right path”.

The statement by al-Assaf was a response to a question pertinent to Qatar’s presence at the summit amid blockade. “Qatar participated in previous summits, so it is not new”, he disclosed while answering the question. “The Saudi stance, like the other countries, is that we are looking for a solution for the causes of the problems and the crisis between these countries and Qatar. Hopefully, there will be a solution if Qatar comes back to the right path,” he added further.

Qatar, dissatisfied with the culmination of the emergency summits, hit back at Saudi Arabia stating that the summit seemed like “Washington’s policy towards Iran and not one that takes the neighborhood into consideration”. The Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, in an interview to Al-Jazeera, expressed Qatar’s deep-rooted disappointment on the partial nature of the emergency summit that perhaps aimed at isolating Iran.

Read more: Saudi Arabia lambasts Iran for aggression as Qatar works for de-escalation

“The statements condemned Iran but did not refer to a moderate policy to speak with Tehran,” Al Thani said in the interview. He further raised Qatar’s concerns regarding Saudi Arabia’s uncalled for attitude towards Qatar, referring to the statements made by the Saudi FM at the summit regarding Qatar’s presence. “The Gulf summit statement talked about a unified Gulf, but where is it amid the continuation of Qatar’s blockade?” Al Thani questioned while rejecting the final proceedings of the meetings.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani welcomes a New Partnership with Qatar

Welcoming Al Thani’s response, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran stated that Qatar’s narrative being balanced is based “on the policy of good neighborliness and aimed at reducing tensions”. Further lauding Qatar’s firm position on a stable regional narrative he said: “Without a doubt, any summit that does not bring regional countries closer together will be ineffective, counterproductive and even harmful,”

In a mutual-assurance move, the Qatari Emir also reaffirmed Qatar’s commitment to strengthen its ties with Iran and to subsequently help Tehran achieve its negotiation goals to head off regional tensions.

“Regional issues have no military solution and we believe that threat, pressure, siege, and economic sanctions are wrong moves in relations between governments’. Iran’s stance towards Kuwait’s occupation by Saddam, Saudi Arabia and UAE’s invasion on Yemen, and the siege of Qatar proves that Iran is against war, pressure, and sanctions in this region,” he further added.

In a phone call between the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani and the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Wednesday, the emphasis on strengthening ties between the two states was ensured in order to collectively solve the on-going regional issues.

Rouhani, while discussing the post-Mecca summit proceedings with Al Thani, reiterated that the tensions in Gulf pertaining to Tehran were “detrimental” and required dialogue as Iran had no intention to fight a war with any state with its deteriorating economic condition. The official website of the Iranian presidency quoted Sheikh Tamim stating, “The points of view of Tehran and Doha are very close in many regional issues and the frequent contact between the two countries are very productive,”

In a mutual-assurance move, the Qatari Emir also reaffirmed Qatar’s commitment to strengthen its ties with Iran and to subsequently help Tehran achieve its negotiation goals to head off regional tensions.

Read more: Saudi-led blockade on Qatar not ending anytime soon

Qatar’s Energy & Economic Inter-dependence with Iran

Qatar has strong reasons to balance its relations with Iran. It shares the Pars gas fields with its large northern neighbor. The South Pars and North Dome field is by far the world’s largest natural gas field, with its ownership shared between Iran and Qatar. Both countries, despite being in different regional blocs, have managed this relationship well. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet (51 trillion cubic metres) of in-situ natural gas and some 50 billion barrels (7.9 billion cubic metres) of natural gas condensates.

On the list of natural gas fields it has almost as much recoverable reserves than all the other fields combined. It has significant geostrategic influence. This gas field covers an area of 9,700 square kilometres (3,700 sq mi), of which 3,700 square kilometres (1,400 sq mi) (South Pars) is in Iranian territorial waters and 6,000 square kilometres (2,300 sq mi) (North Dome) is in Qatari territorial waters.

In addition, between 15-20% of Qatar’s population is of Shia sect and is mostly of Iranian origin. Of all the Gulf states, Qatar is the only one where Shia are comfortably integrated into the body politic and are also seen in positions of state responsibility.

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