Iran and Qatar in the 1980s
The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War prompted a number of regional Arab states, including Qatar, to rally behind Iraq in its conflict against Iran. However, whereas Saudi Arabia and Kuwait openly supported Iraq with financial and military resources, Qatar’s support was far less direct and more muted, agreeing, for example, to enter into a security agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1982 under the umbrella of the newly formed GCC.12 Throughout, Qatar was careful to be comparatively moderate in its support for Iraq. As in before, Doha’s approach appears to have been motivated by domestic concerns on the one hand, not wanting to upset the relationship between the country’s Shia community and the Al-Thani ruling family, and by fears of an overreaction by Tehran on the other. A few months after Iraq’s invasion, the Iranian embassy in Doha announced that Qatar’s Iranian residents had made contributions in cash and materials to Iran’s war efforts.13 Moreover, especially during the so-called tanker war phase of the Iran-Iraq War, Qatar was painfully aware of Iran’s military capabilities and the proximity of Iranian naval activities to Qatari territory.14 In the 1983 GCC summit held in Doha, Sheikh Khalifah called on Iran to “follow Iraq’s example in responding positively to end the war between them and to establish peace in the area.”15
Such declarations notwithstanding, Qatar, along with Oman, remained as neutral in the conflict as its membership of the GCC allowed. Despite its generally pro-Iraqi stance, therefore, Qatar’s diplomatic relations with Iran remained uninterrupted.16 Diplomatic relations continued as usual throughout the mid-1980s, and, in 1984, Qatari authorities allowed a hijacked Iran Air plane to land and refuel at the Doha airport.17
Qatar’s strategy appears to have served it well as the war progressed and took unexpected turns and twists into the 1980s. Beginning in 1984, Iraq began attacking Iranian ships and oilrigs deeper into the Persian Gulf and the “tanker war” ensued. In 1986, in retaliation for Kuwait’s support of Iraqi war efforts and shipping of Iraqi oil, Iran began attacking Kuwaiti tankers, in turn prompting the US to reflag 11 Kuwaiti tankers and to provide them with military escort as they transited through the Persian Gulf.18 From Doha’s perspective, the tanker war brought the conflict uncomfortably close to Qatari territory. In an earlier, 1983 Iraqi attack on Iranian oil fields in the Persian Gulf, a massive oil slick had threatened a number of desalination plants along the Qatari cost, forcing the country to place special barriers to prevent the slick from reaching the plants.19 More ominously, a number of the tankers that were hit by Iranian forces were attacked close to Qatar.20 Iran was also reported to have placed attack helicopters on an idle oil rig in the middle of the Persian Gulf halfway between the Iranian and the Qatari coastlines.21 In May 1986, in reprisal for an Iraqi attack on an Iranian supertanker, Iran was reported to have attacked a Saudi tanker off the Qatari coast.22
Qatar’s increasingly uncomfortable predicament in the conflict appears to have resulted in some inconsistencies in its position, as manifested in vacillations between advocating tougher Iraqi and US actions against Iran while at the same time taking a more conciliatory position toward the Islamic Republic.23 At the time, faced with continued slump in the oil prices internationally, economic recession at home and the ever-present danger of spillover from the conflict, the various regional states were keen to see the Iran-Iraq War come to an end, and many assumed that added pressure would compel Tehran to come to the negotiating table. The war finally ended in August 1988, shortly after the US shot down an Iran Air jetliner over the Persian Gulf, claiming to have mistaken it for a jet fighter.24
In return for Qatar’s relative neutrality during the war, Iran sided with Qatar during the emirate’s territorial dispute with Bahrain over the Fasht al-Dibal Island in the 1980s.25 Qatar has not, however, sided with Iran in its dispute with the UAE over the three Persian Gulf islands of the Lesser and Greater Tunbs and Abu Musa. Instead, under the rubric of the GCC, Qatar has long sided with the UAE and has supported repeated GCC resolutions calling for the islands’ handover to Abu Dhabi.26 From Doha’s perspective, harmonious relationships within the GCC and support for a fellow Arab state’s cause, one to which the even-more-neutral Oman also routinely signs on, are strategically more valuable than the potential of friction with Iran. There is, at any rate, no evidence to suggest that Doha’s support for the UAE over the islands issue has ever been a source of friction with Tehran, Tehran viewing it more as a matter of diplomatic necessity for Doha rather than a question of genuine conviction and substantive support.