How Iran used Qatar to further its regional interests

How Iran used Qatar to further its regional interests

One of the phenomena that make the revolutionary regime in Iran distinct from rational state actors is linked to the approach it uses to deal with its allies. Put simply, having good diplomatic relations with the ruling mullahs, or being on their side, does not mean they will not attempt to forcefully exploit an ally.

One prominent example is linked to a recent report, revealed by the BBC, regarding the existence of confidential documents in connection with Qatar, the Iranian regime, its militias and other terror groups. This development is critical because it draws on several important issues. Firstly, even though Iran claims that Qatar is a close ally, the former used the latter’s citizens kidnapped in Iraq as pawns to advance its hegemonic ambitions. 

It appears that Iranian leaders made hundreds of millions of dollars off Qatar in the secret hostage deal. Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force — an elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that conducts operations abroad — received at least $50 million. Tehran-backed militias were also recipients of funds from Doha in the deal.

This points to the IRGC’s employment of a shrewd political strategy, as it appears that Iran’s military tried to tie the release of hostages to Qatari involvement in Syria and Yemen. Two of the kidnappers’ demands were that Qatar leave the Saudi-led coalition battling Shiite rebels in Yemen and secure the release of Iranian soldiers held by rebels in Syria. 

Even though Iran claims that Qatar is a close ally, the former used the latter’s citizens kidnapped in Iraq as pawns to advance its hegemonic ambitions.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

These demands evidently favor advancing Tehran’s regional interests. Iran is forcefully trying to expand it military and political influence in Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, it exerts significant influence, directly and indirectly, through more than 40 Iraqi militias that operate under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

Another crucial aspect is linked to Qatar’s role in the secret hostage deal. Doha cannot play the victim card. The revealed information, text messages and phone calls prove that it conspired with the IRGC and Hezbollah to transfer to Iran and its Shiite militias around $1 billion for the release of the hostages. Intriguingly, after the report’s publication, even Qatari officials have acknowledged that the texts and voicemails are accurate, the BBC reported.

Another critical issue is that the report confirms that Qatar paid and conspired with individuals and entities that are either designated as terrorist groups or listed as top sponsors of global terrorism. They include Iran-backed Shiite militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah; Syrian groups such as Al-Nusra Front; the IRGC and Soleimani, who has long been subject to European and American sanctions. 

In addition, as the texts and phone calls reveal, it has become evident that Doha was initially dishonest by staunchly denying paying terrorist groups. In March 2018, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani, wrote in The New York Times that his country “did not pay a ransom.”

The leaking of the confidential documents raises questions about Qatar’s casualness regarding conducting operations or pursuing policies that may directly support terrorism. Some people contend that such support is evident through backing Al-Nusra and hosting terror groups in Doha. 

The disclosed confidential information is very revealing about one of Tehran’s fundraising tactics, which relies on illicit activities conducted by the IRGC — such as kidnapping and extortion — and its militias and proxies across the region. Tehran has long played a role in such operations.

The texts and phone calls highlight the willingness of Iran and its militias to exploit and escalate conflicts, and to use illegal and immoral tactics to achieve political and military outcomes. In addition, the notion that Qatar conspired with the IRGC and Hezbollah to transfer to Iran and its Shiite militias and terror groups around $1 billion should be taken very seriously by other governments and the international community. 


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business.

Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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