Iran and Qatar Prior and During the Iranian Revolution
The geostrategic landscape of the Persian Gulf in the 1970s saw Iran as a rising military and economic power and Qatar as a small, brand new state struggling to craft its own course out of the dominant shadow of Saudi
Arabia. Not surprisingly, the two countries found a convergence of interests in a number of regional issues, chief among them policy coordination within OPEC. Throughout the 1970s, while Qatar was careful not to openly contradict and antagonize Saudi Arabia’s oil policies within OPEC, it did try as much as possible to coordinate its oil policies with Iran.6 At the same time, Qatari leaders treated Iran with deference and its monarchy with respect, seeing it as a source of regional stability and economic and industrial progress. There were frequent praises from Qatar’s leader at the time, Sheikh Khalifah, for “the sagacious leadership” of the Shah and expressions of admiration for his domestic policies.7 When in 1975 Sheikh Khalifah visited Tehran, for example, a joint communique at the end of the trip promised to expand relations between the two “friendly and fraternal countries in various fields” and committed both to “safeguarding freedom of navigation” in the Persian Gulf.8 From Doha’s perspective, Iran was seen as an especially useful ally and counterweight against the more radical Arab states of Libya, Algeria, Syria, and especially Iraq, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the hegemonic ambitions of Saudi Arabia in relations to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Tehran, meanwhile, did not see Doha as a serious player in regional and international affairs—and neither did Doha see its own role in such terms at the time—but saw in Qatar a potentially useful ally, both within OPEC and, diplomatically, with which it therefore maintained friendly relations.
Similar to many of the other regional states, the approach of the Iranian revolution in 1977-1978 and its success in 1979 made Qatar nervous about the prospects of regional instability and, more ominously, the possibility of spillover. Not surprisingly, the Qatari government remained supportive of the Iranian monarchy to the end, with Sheikh Khalifah expressing support for the Shah’s regime up until its final days. Iran “is a dear and friendly neighbor,” he said late in 1978 in his annual speech before Qatar’s Consultative Assembly, “with which we are united by the brotherhood of Islam.” He expressed the hope that “Iran will be able to enjoy the security and stability it deserves—security and stability that would fulfill its aspirations or prosperity and welfare under the leadership of his majesty our brother, the Shah, for whom and for whose significant services to his fraternal country we have the deepest esteem.”9
Qatar’s apprehensiveness about the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and its replacement with a revolutionary Islamic Republic was not without justification. Soon after the revolution’s success, in March 1979 a delegation of 70 Qataris, presumably all Shia, met with Ayatollah Khomeini in
Qom and expressed their support and allegiance to him and the cause of the revolution.10 While relatively benign compared to developments in nearby countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, in which the Iranian revolution stoked feelings of injustice and empowerment among the local Shia and even some Sunnis, expressions of support and sympathy for Iran’s revolution by Qataris did cause alarm in some quarters in Doha. These concerns soon proved comparatively minor, however, when in September 1980 Iraq invaded Iran in order to capitalize on the country’s post-revolutionary chaos by bringing the young Islamic Republic to its knees and gaining territory in the country’s oil-rich southwest region. Thus ensued the longest war of the twentieth century, lasting eight years, and in the process completely redrawing the strategic landscape of the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East.11