Iran-Qatar Relations

Mehran Kamrava

Iran and Qatar, its small neighbor to the south, have little in common in terms of geography, size of population and demographic make-up, history, and politics and ideology. Nevertheless, they have been drawn together in search of common ground by the force of circumstances on the one hand and the strategic and policy preferences of their leaders on the other. The result has been the emergence of a broadly friendly, “nodispute” approach by each state toward the other despite what have been at times very trying circumstances and vastly divergent policy preferences. This chapter analyzes these circumstances and preferences, paying particular attention to how their interplay has influenced and shaped each state’s diplomacy toward the other. The symbiotic relationship between these two variables—circumstances and preferences—the chapter argues, has resulted in a generally friendly approach adopted by Iran and Qatar toward one another.

While relations between Iran and Qatar are conducted on the basis of bilateral trade and diplomatic considerations, they are also influenced by broader regional dynamics within the Persian Gulf region, especially those involving Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a collective organization. Qatar in particular finds its maneuverability at times

M. Kamrava (*)

Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University, Doha, Qatar

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G. Bahgat et al. (eds.), Security and Bilateral Issues between Iran and its Arab Neighbours, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-43289-2_8

constrained by its need to conform to the policies and resolutions adopted by the GCC. This is not always an inconvenience for Qatar. Eager not to proactively antagonize Iran but also not wanting to alienate its neighboring Arab brethren, the GCC affords Qatar the diplomatic protection it needs to adopt policies that may run counter to Iranian interests and displease Tehran but can in turn be justified as the will of the collective organization.

This has been particularly the case during the tenure in office of Sheikh Tamim, Qatar’s ruler since 2013. Tamim rule has so far corresponded with a period of assertiveness on the part of Saudi Arabia in its foreign and security policies, especially in relation to Iran. In the aftermath of the signing of the landmark agreement in 2015 between Iran and the Western powers over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the kingdom launched its own campaign aimed at marginalizing Iran and impeding the country’s efforts to end its regional and international isolation.1 This was reflected in the policies and postures adopted by the GCC toward Iran, resulting in a slight cooling of Qatar’s relations with the Islamic Republic. Such fluctuations notwithstanding, the essence of the relationship, in which the small emirate and Iran have largely sought to avoid conflict and to accommodate each other whenever possible, has generally been preserved.

This tendency toward mutual accommodation has largely been a result of the ways in which both countries have viewed relations with and the utility of the other. For Qatar, Iran has been a key element in its foreign policy strategy of hedging and a useful counterweight to both Saudi Arabia and the US. At the same time, keenly aware of its military and security vulnerabilities as a small state, Qatar has proactively avoided tensions and conflicts with Iran. For Iran, Qatar has been one of the few Arab neighbors with whom it has not had territorial, ideological, or strategic competition, and a potentially useful partner in a variety of regional and international issues. For both states, the benefits of accommodation and cooperation have outweighed the potential costs of competition and conflict. The consequence has been a mutual tendency toward conflict avoidance whenever possible and cooperation when necessary.

Unlike most other Persian Gulf states that have adopted a foreign policy strategy of bandwagoning, Qatar has opted for hedging. Broadly summed up as a combination of bandwagoning and balancing, hedging involves maintaining open lines of communication with multiple and at times opposing actors which often find themselves at odds on key international and strategic issues. More importantly, hedging involves plac?ing one big bet one way, as in security alliances and partnerships, and a number of smaller bets the opposite way, as in maintaining diplomatic and ostensibly “friendly” relations. These secondary relations need not necessarily be substantive and as in depth as those with the primary ally, but they are meaningful enough for the actor engaging in hedging not to be taken for granted, and, at the same time, to at once appear friendly to multiple, opposing actors. Small states often adopt hedging as a survival strategy as they feel they cannot afford to have enemies, although Qatar has perfected hedging to point of using it as a means of influence and leverage in its international relations across the Middle East and beyond.2 The emirate’s employment of hedging can be traced back to the mid- 1990s, when it placed its security and military bets firmly on the side of the US and yet continued to maintain friendly and cordial relations with a number of state and non-state actors bitterly opposed to US international goals and strategies, most notable among them groups like Hamas and countries such as Iran.

It is within the context of this hedging strategy that Doha’s approach to relations with Iran needs to be analyzed, whereby for Qatar, Iran is one of the elements within which it balances its relations with the US, maintains ostensibly friendly but substantively superficial relations with Iran and, at the same time, places itself in a strategically pivotal position whereby neither the US nor Iran, nor even the other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, can take it for granted or treat it as a small state with minimal or even secondary significance.

Iran approaches its relations with Qatar and the other Persian Gulf states from a different perspective. The Islamic Republic has seen the Persian Gulf region as an area of potential and real threats since its very establishment in the 1979s, when the various regional actors first supported the monarchical regime to the end, then actively aided Iraq in its eight-year war efforts against Iran and then invited the US to station military forces on their soil in order to contain, counter and undermine Iranian interests both in the immediate vicinity and beyond. From this perspective, Iran has actually benefited from Qatar’s hedging strategy and has consistently sought to substantively deepen its friendly diplomatic relations with the small emirate, a move Doha has so far steadfastly resisted.

More specifically, Tehran has pursued a carefully calculated policy toward Doha. While Iran has tried to deepen its relationship with the emirate, it has been careful not to cede strategic ground to Qatar and to enable Doha to gain greater international notoriety at Iran’s expense. Prior to the holding of direct talks between Iran and the US in 2013, for example, Qatari diplomats repeatedly offered to mediate between the two countries but their offer was met with a cold reception in Tehran; eager to talk to the Americans, Iranian diplomats were nevertheless reluctant to let Qatar have the limelight by doing something they could not do on their own.

Throughout the decades, Qatar has consistently sought to accommodate Iran on various issues and has deliberately eschewed aggravating Iran and upsetting its delicate relations with the Islamic Republic. At the same time, it has also demonstrated that there are rigid limits to its relations with Iran, as it did with its complete support of the entry of Saudi and Emirati troops to put down an anti-Khalifa uprising in Bahrain in 2011, and its determined efforts to hasten the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria beginning in the same year.3 From Iran’s perspective, Qatar, whose comparatively neutral position within the GCC Tehran appreciates, offers a potentially important partner in shipping and commerce, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) policy, diplomacy and, of course, the exploitation of the South Pars gas field.4 Over the course of the past several decades, therefore, Iran and Qatar have maintained “an unlikely relationship of mutual tolerance for the best part of 30 years,” based on “safeguarding the lowest common denominators that brought the two countries together in the first place.”5

It is within this context that this chapter traces the history of Iran’s relationship with Qatar from before the 1978-1979 revolution up until today. Through revolution and war, tensions and disagreements, Iran and Qatar have been drawn together by a need for mutual friendship, one forged as much by the force of circumstances as by the pragmatism and preferences of policymakers on both sides. Looking ahead, neither these circumstances nor the policy preferences they shape are likely to change anytime in the foreseeable future.

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