The tiny Persian Gulf country of Qatar has chosen a herculean task for itself: to mediate between the United States and Iran. As Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani put it on Feb. 10, Doha “is working on de-escalation through a political and diplomatic process.” To this end, al-Thani recently spoke to U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and U.S. Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley.
Given its size, Qatar might seem a curious choice. Other top contenders to mediate are either diplomatic heavy-hitters, such as Japan or France, or have a long track record in this area, like Oman, which has over recent years hosted multiple rounds of backchannel U.S.-Iran talks. But the Qataris have good reasons to want to do this. An outright conflict between Iran and the U.S. will put Qatar on the frontlines. It is, after all, home to the largest American military base in the Middle East. The Qataris have also had clandestine intelligence relations with their Iranian counterparts, unlike very many other countries. That is a facility that can be of value to both Iran and the U.S.
Qatar between the US and Iran
For sure, the U.S.-Iran-Qatar affair is as multi-dimensional as it is time-tested. In June 2017, Qatar’s fellow Arab countries imposed a blockade on Doha. The Saudis and the UAE spearheaded the effort to extract concessions from Qatar before the blockade would be lifted. Of the 13 demands made, one was that Doha scale back its ties with Tehran and cut off its military and intelligence cooperation with Iran.
Qatar rejected the demands. For the remainder of the blockade, which officially ended in early January, Qatar’s ties with Iran only strengthened. It became a source of food and supplies and opened up its airspace and ports for Qatari operators. To the outside world Iran might have appeared as a savior for Qatar in its hour of need, but Doha still played it very safe vis-à-vis Tehran.
This reluctance had nothing to do with allaying the fears of its fellow Arab states. It was about Qatar’s careful balancing of its short-term, immediate need for a helping hand from Iran versus its long-term ambition to have Washington underwrite Qatari independence and security.
For example, during 2017-20, as the blockade resulted in an increase in Iran-Qatar trade, Doha was still reluctant to let Iranian banks enter its market. Iranian businessmen complained about a lack of visas. The Qataris clearly did not want to be accused of breaching U.S. sanctions on Tehran. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign had shrunk the space for Qatar’s Iran policy.
The Iranians accepted Qatar’s predicament and priorities. Tehran looked on uneasily but unsurprised as Doha first agreed to spend $1.8 billion to upgrade the American military base in Qatar and subsequently backed the American motion at the U.N. to extend an arms embargo on Iran beyond October 2020. To Iran, it all confirmed Qatar’s prioritization of Washington’s interests.
What can Qatar do for Iran and the US?
Two realities are, therefore, undeniable about Iran-Qatar relations. First, while they have never been trouble-free, neither side is interested in turning the other into an explicit adversary. Second, Doha and Tehran have sought to pursue mutually-advantageous cooperation when an opportunity has presented itself. The Biden administration seeking ways to talk to Tehran, including the use of third-party mediators, might just be such an opportunity.
Time will tell what Qatari Foreign Minister al-Thani meant when he said Doha is “working to de-escalate” tensions between the U.S. and Iran. It could be something as simple as providing a venue for diplomatic talks. Doha is already doing that on the diplomatic track between Washington and the Taliban movement. Perhaps Oman, a country that earlier provided such a venue, is too busy with its own affairs. The new Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq is wrestling with all sorts of economic challenges at home and his appetite and bandwidth to act as a mediator is likely considerably constrained as compared to his predecessor, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. By contrast, Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, has ample financial capacity to facilitate a U.S.-Iran diplomatic process.
Qatar has another advantage over Oman or other possible mediators as well. Recent history shows that Doha has a working relationship not just with the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, but also the so-called Iranian “deep state.” In this case, this ominous classification refers to the powerful Revolutionary Guards. The latter is a state-within-state in Iran. The Guards control Tehran’s regional agenda and its ballistic missile program, two areas the Biden administration is keen to include in future talks with the Iranians.
A good recent example of Doha’s access to Iran’s “deep state” was publicized in 2015 when a group of 26 Qataris were kidnapped in Iraq by pro-Iran militiamen. It took Doha direct negotiations over a 16-month period before the Qataris were released. The negotiations involved Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and personalities such as Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, who was later assassinated by the U.S. in Iraq.
In the end, the Qataris had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom to the kidnappers and they were asked to pressure Qatar-backed Sunni opposition groups in Syria, who at the time were fighting the forces of the Iran-backed President Bashar al-Assad. The affair showcased Qatari-Iranian competition but also the ability to cut deals when necessary. This Qatari track record of cutting deals with the Iranian state, including its “deep state,” is surely not lost on the Biden team. Indeed, it might very well be the reason why Doha has been mentioned as a mediator in the Iran-U.S. standoff.
Alex Vatanka is the director of MEI's Iran Program and a senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are his own.
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