Iran and Qatar in the 1990s and the 2000s
The Persian Gulf’s security architecture changed once again in the 1990s. Almost as soon as the Iran-Iraq War ended, Iraq began threatening its neighbors to the south, especially Kuwait, eventually invading it in August 1990. In Iran, meanwhile, the death in 1989 of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini and the initiation of far-reaching constitutional amendments resulted in the inauguration of a “second republic” and the start of diplomatic moves by the country to repair its relations with its various Persian Gulf neighbors.27 Not surprisingly, therefore, some of the smaller GCC states, Qatar among them, began to see Iran as less of a threat and even as a potentially useful security partner. Qatar’s foreign minister at the time remarked that “there is no limit” to consultation with Iran on security issues.28 In 1990, Iran announced that it had agreed with Qatar to a joint, $3 billion project to develop the South Pars gas field.29 Although the agreement never came to fruition, it did nonetheless mark a significant turning point in Iranian-Qatari relations. In 1993, Qatar announced on behalf of the GCC that the organization will not ask the US to attack Iran if the Islamic Republic blocked the Hormuz Strait, expressing hope that “Iran’s threat is not serious.”30
Qatar itself entered a new era in 1995 when the emir, Sheikh Khalifah, was overthrown in a palace coup by his son and heir apparent, Sheikh Hamad. Although effectively the country’s ruler for a number of years before formally assuming power, Hamad was quick to put his own mark on Qatari foreign policy, drawing his country further out of the Saudi shadow and charting an independent, often brash foreign policy. Early on in his reign, in a not-too-subtle reference to Saudi Arabia, the new emir is reported to have said: “they want us to be a follower. But this is my problem. I don’t like to follow.”31
The second half of the 1990s and the 2000s saw a steady warming trend in Iranian-Qatari relations, featuring a number of state visits and other high-ranking diplomatic exchanges. It was at this time that a mutually beneficial strategic relationship between the two states emerged, with Qatar using Iran as a counterforce in its hedging strategy against Saudi Arabia and the US, and Iran seeing Qatar as a useful counterbalance to its often contentious relations with Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These warming ties remained intact even after the US relocated its military forces from Saudi Arabia into the Qatari desert in 2003, at a time when US-Iranian tensions were at an all-time high and the threat of a US military attack on Iran was credible and real. Had a US attack on Iran taken place, American warplanes and materiel stationed in Qatar would inevitably have been used, thus drawing Qatar inescapably into a conflict with Iran. At the time, unconfirmed rumors circulated that Iranian President Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) had warned Qatari leaders that if the US carried out its threat of attacking Iran, Iranian forces would have no choice but to retaliate by hitting back at US forces based in Qatari.
Nevertheless, in January 2006, Ahmadinejad reiterated Iran’s determination to maintain “excellent” ties with Qatar. A “broadening of brotherly ties” with Qatar, he maintained, especially in areas of economics and in oil and gas cooperation, is among Iran’s top diplomatic priorities. He further maintained that the two countries “should not yield to any type of limits in broadening of bilateral ties” with Qatar.32 Qatar in turn displayed its friendship with Iran in a critical vote at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In July 2006, Qatar was the only country to vote against UNSC Resolution 1696, which imposed multilateral sanctions on Iran and demanded the country suspend its nuclear enrichment efforts. But the limits of Qatar’s flexibility toward Iran were soon displayed in December 2006 and March 2007, when it voted for UNSC Resolutions 1737 and 1747 which authorized further multilateral sanctions against Iran. As one analysis has pointed out, “when put on the spot Doha showed that its July
2006 vote in support of Iran was a one-off and that Qatar will not veer away from international consensus on big-ticket policy issues.”33
As if to make up for its vote in the United Nations, in a radical departure and much to the consternation of other regional leaders, in December
2007 Sheikh Hamad for the first time invited Iran’s president to the GCC summit held in Doha. In a further sign of bilateral cooperation, in 2008, based on an Iranian proposal, Qatar joined Iran and Russia to establish the
Gas Exporting Countries Forum, headquartered in Doha, which was soon thereafter joined by a number of other major gas producers, including Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria and the UAE.
In March 2010, Iran and Qatar further deepened their friendship by signing a security pact meant to enhance cooperation between the two countries in the areas of combatting smuggling and illegal drugs, forgery, and money laundering. In itself, the pact is not unique and Iran has signed similar agreements with Syria, Oman, Turkey, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.34 Furthermore, while the pact exists on paper, there is no evidence to suggest that it has actually resulted in in-depth, substantive cooperation between the two countries in the security field. Nevertheless, in 2010 Qatar armed forces chief was reported to have announced his country’s readiness to hold joint military exercises with Iran.35 In 2014, the two countries also explored the possibility of expanding police and coast guard collaboration.36
At the time of the signing of the security pack in 2010, Iran’s semiofficial Mehr News Agency quoted Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, as saying that “Qatar will not allow any country to interfere in its relations with Iran” and that Qatar supported Iran’s right to nuclear technology and its peaceful nuclear energy program.37 The same year Sheikh Hamad the emir was reported to have said that he will “not allow Qatari soil to be used (by foreign countries) for purposes of striking Iran.” He also subtly criticized US policy on Iran: “Iran is a big and great country, surrounded by many countries. Okay, sanctions will affect [it] in some way but question is, do we want Iran to co-operate with the world ... or do we want to push Iran into a corner.”38 That December Hamad made a previously unannounced trip to Tehran amid speculation that he was carrying messages from “Western powers,” presumably the US, to try to get Iran to reduce its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah.39
None of these developments is to be interpreted as signs of an emerging, long-term strategic alliance between Iran and Qatar. Instead, each side has taken an instrumentalist approach to its relationship with the other, as evident by Hamad bin Jassim’s confession to an American diplomat: “They lie to us,” he said of Qatar’s relations with Iran, “and we lie to them.”40 In fact, in 2011 serious disagreements over the Syrian civil war led to a trading of accusations online by semi-official news sites and even reportedly caused President Ahmadinejad to cancel a state visit to Qatar.41 In January 2013, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani, a senior cleric in Qom, went so far as to accuse the Qatari government of promoting Wahhabi ideology in the southern Bushehr province. While these types of private speeches are not uncommon, what was significant this time was the coverage of Ayatollah Hamedani’s remarks by the semiofficial Mehr News Agency. “Qatar has proved its lackey attitude to US, EU, and International Zionism,” Hamedani remarked, “and spent $3b to convert people of Iran’s south regions to Wahhabism in a despicable act... Qatar has proved its servitude to the US and Israel by distributing books and desecration of Shi’ism... All Qatar’s oil and gas income is [spent] according to EU and Israel’s interests, and in Netanyahu’s election campaign.”42
The prominence given to Hamedani’s speech indicates one of the ways in which the Iranian government expressed its displeasure with Qatari policies toward and activities in Syria. Nevertheless, even as the two countries found themselves at odds over Syria, especially in 2012-2013, official visits at the highest levels continued.43 In congratulating Sheikh Tamim on his ascension as Qatar’s new emir following Hamad’s retirement in June 2013, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi admitted that “we have some differences of opinion in some regional issues but this is not detrimental to having greater political relations with one another. When it comes to the pivotal issues that we are facing in the region, hopefully, we will be able to get our opinions and views closer together especially when it comes to the issue of Syria. Hopefully, Shaykh Tamim will take special heed of this issue [as] the Islamic Republic has announced that it would welcome any Syria-Syria solu- tion.”44 In 2014, in an effort to expand trade and economic relations, along with signing several protocols, the two countries announced the establishment of three joint-free trade zones, one located in the Iranian port city of Bushehr and two others in Qatar, in Doha and Al-Ruwais port.45 By 2015, Qatari-Iranian trade was estimated at approximately $500 million.46
The year 2013 also saw the election of a new president in Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and a renewed effort on the part of the Islamic Republic to break out of its international isolation and to repair the damage to its relations with both Western and Arab countries during the Ahmadinejad presidency. In an effort to break the deadlock with the West and especially the US over its nuclear program, the new administration in Tehran launched an aggressive diplomatic campaign that culminated in in-depth and substantive negotiations with the permanent members of the UNSC and Germany, the so-called P5+1. While the initial breakthroughs in negotiations between Iran and the Western powers were met with apprehension and at times outright fear by most GCC states—especially Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE—Qatar welcomed the development and saw it as a fruitful step toward making the Middle East region a nuclear-free zone.47 Contrary to Saudi apprehension, when the accord was finally signed in late summer 2015, Qatar supported what it called a “major breakthrough” that will contribute to “maintaining regional and international peace and creating a positive regional atmosphere.”48 A few weeks after the nuclear deal was finalized, as the Saudis were busy sounding alarm bells over potential Iranian mischiefs in the post-accord era, Qatar proposed the start of a region-wide dialogue between Iran and its Arab neighbors. Although nothing came out of the proposal, Iran very much welcomed the Qatari initiative.49
The marked differences in Qatari versus Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati reactions to Iran’s negotiations with the P5 + 1 can be explained through analysis of the foreign policy approaches adopted by each side. One of the drawbacks of bandwagoning is abandonment, or fear of being abandoned, by one’s protector and security guarantor. For some 35 years, regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have capitalized on US-Iranian tensions and have used their pro-Western policies as leverage for favorable treatment in the fields of trade and commerce, military and security ties, and political and diplomatic relations. For them, ever-closer and expansive ties with the West and especially with the US, at Iran’s expense, have become an integral pillar on which the regimes have relied for their survival and longevity. Any changes to this formula, as seemingly underway when Iran and the P5 + 1 started indepth, earnest negotiations in 2013, would be cause for apprehension and in fact panic.
Qatar, however, found itself in a different predicament. Not only did it not fear or oppose negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, on a number of previous occasions it was rumored to have offered to actually mediate between Iran and the US. Although Qatar does rely on the US for its security needs, hedging has enabled it to consistently maintain open lines of communication and in fact close relations with Iran, albeit often superficially. Although Qatar has also benefited from US-Iranian tensions, it does not view the continuation of these tensions as an important source of leverage vis-a-vis the West and especially the US. In fact, given its small size and its location, as well as its reliance on open shipping and sea lanes, Qatar welcomes a precipitous reduction of tensions in the Persian Gulf.
The significance of open and tension-free sea lanes in the Persian Gulf for Qatar is particularly important given the country’s reliance on—and at some critical levels competition with Iran over—the extraction and export of liquefied natural gas (LNG). In fact, especially since the early 1990s, LNG has come to form an important aspect of the relationship that has developed between the two countries. It is to this aspect of Iran-Qatari relations that the chapter now turns.