After President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last month, Iranian leaders were worried about the creation of a U.S.-supported alliance of regional Arab states led by Saudi Arabia to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East. The latest dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc of Arab countries, therefore, provided some relief to Tehran. But while Tehran is trying to capitalize on the Qatar crisis for its geopolitical ends, it is proceeding with caution. As statements by Iranian officials and commentary in the Iranian media suggest, many in Iran distrust Qatar as well as Doha’s powerful regional ally Turkey. There are also concerns in Tehran that Iran’s all-out support to Qatar may provoke a strong response from Washington and Riyadh.
Pros and cons
On June 5, Saudi Arabia followed by several other Arab nations severed diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar to protest Doha’s alleged support for terrorism and close relations with Iran. Officially, the Iranian government responded by calling on all parties to show restraint and resolve the dispute diplomatically. “Neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed. Coercion is never the solution. Dialogue is imperative, especially during blessed Ramadan,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted hours after the crisis began. But the Gulf dispute has triggered a debate inside Iran about pros and cons of Iran’s siding with Doha.
A lengthy analysis in Tabnak News Agency, for example, argued that Qatar’s only way to survive the Saudi-led “blockade” is to forge closer ties with Iran. It also added that Qatar needs to partner with a powerful regional player such as Iran in order to counter its strategic isolation by its traditional allies. The piece in Tabnak, which is affiliated with former Islamic Revolution Guards (I.R.G.C.) commander Mohsen Rezaei, further stressed that the “Arab rift is a suitable opportunity for Iran to attract one other Arab player into its own regional bloc, or at least ensure that this country does not enter anti-Iran alliances.”
During the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Tabnak pointed out, Iran opened its borders to Kuwaiti citizens and recognized the Kuwaiti government in exile in Saudi Arabia. “Many believe that the Iranian move to support Kuwait is the reason this country never seriously joins anti-Iran coalitions led by Saudi Arabia.” Iran can replicate that success with Qatar now, it said, emphasizing that despite differences over the wars in Yemen and Syria, Tehran and Doha have had friendly relations for decades. It noted that Doha voted against the anti-Iran U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 in 2006 even though China and Russia voted for it.
Risks for Iran
However, the article cautioned that Tehran’s outreach to Doha may entail three risks for Tehran: “First, Iran’s support can further aggravate the crisis and tension between these countries and make Saudi Arabia and its allies more determined to take more serious measures against Doha… Second, Iran’s support may open the door for America to enter the crisis. With Washington’s involvement, Russia may also interfere and we could witness the dispute transforming from a foreign policy crisis into a regional and international one. Third, Saudi Arabia and its allies may try to thrust Iran into another Middle Eastern crisis and increase the potential for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran… With Iran’s support to Qatar, Saudi Arabia can sway public opinion in the Arab world against Qatar and pave the way for a military intervention to topple the Qatari regime.”
Distrust of Turkey
Over the past week, Turkey has openly sided with Qatar. The Turkish government pledged to help Doha to tackle diplomatic and economic isolation and the Turkish parliament fast-tracked the approval of sending additional troops to a Turkish base in Qatar – apparently to avert the threat of a coup or foreign invasion. While Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traveled to Turkey to discuss ways of defusing heightening tension between Arab states in the Persian Gulf, Iranian media commentary indicates there is a deep distrust of Turkey in Tehran.
An article in I.R.G.C.-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, for example, cautioned against siding with Turkey to help Qatar – reasoning that both Ankara and Doha support “terrorists” that fight Iran and its allies in Syria. “Don’t trust Turkey. And don’t side with Turkey. The destruction of Iraq and Syria today is a result of Ankara’s destructive and negative policies,” it wrote. The article further warned that the presence of Turkish troops in the Persian Gulf should not be welcomed. “We object to the presence of American presence in the region but remain silent to Turkey’s,” it said. The article also called on the Rouhani government to avoid playing a prominent role in the Qatar crisis. “Calculations about entering a crisis need to be very precise. Entering a crisis is easy but exiting it could be very costly. We need to escape the trap of Doha-Riyadh crisis intelligently.”
Another Tasnim article stressed that Turkey will not take the path of confrontation with Saudi Arabia and will try to resolve the crisis diplomatically. But the piece advocated that Iran exploit the crisis by waging a propaganda campaign portraying Saudi Arabia as a security threat to the region – using intelligent rather than inflammatory language.
There is, however, a general consensus in Iran that the country should take advantage of the Gulf crisis to boost Iranian exports to Qatar. In recent days, Tehran, according to Iranian officials, has sent hundreds of tons of fruits and vegetables to Qatar to mitigate the country’s food shortage. It has also opened its airspace for Qatari flights that no longer has the permission to fly over Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But I.R.G.C.-affiliated outlets have criticized the Rouhani government for acting sluggishly and losing the competition to Turkey in becoming the main exporter of food to Qatar. An article in Fars News Agency argued that Iran is strategically better placed to export food and non-food items to Qatar by air and sea.
Deputy Head of Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization (PMO) Jalil Eslami said the country's ports in the Persian Gulf are prepared to load and transport the needed goods to Qatar. "We are ready to load and send the materials and goods needed by the Qataris from the ports in Southern Iran," he announced on Sunday. Eslami added that negotiations were underway between the Iranian and Qatari officials on using Iran's ports to send goods to Qatar. Other Iranian economic and trade officials have also emphasized that the Gulf crisis has provided an opportunity for the Iranian businesspeople to find a new, lucrative market in the Persian Gulf.