What the UK should ask Qatar’s emir to do with Iran
The emir of Qatar is in London this week for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May, and she should use her leverage with the Gulf state to demand a more unified approach to dealing with Tehran.
When the BBC published evidence last week that the Qatari government had supplied around a billion dollars to terrorist groups in southern Iraq for the release of 28 hostages kidnapped on a hunting trip, including nine royal family members, it led to outrage across the Middle East because of the likely impact this seemingly reckless move would have on the prolongment of conflict in the region.
The allegations had been made before, but were always denied firmly by Qatar. In March 2018, Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al-Thani, wrote to The New York Times clearly stating that “Qatar did not pay a ransom.” Last week, text messages were revealed that not only exposed the dishonesty of the regime, but also an apparent disinterest in the implications for counter-terrorism operations of any ransom payment of this magnitude.
It was by some distance the largest such transfer ever made, but its costs will be felt most sharply by the residents of Iraq and neighboring countries, who will have to most likely endure many more months of instability and bloodshed as a result of Doha’s decision.
In geopolitical terms, the leaked messages emphasized another aspect of Qatar’s foreign policy, one which may have more far-reaching consequences for the region’s future and Western interests in it. Two of the groups Qatar is shown to be negotiating with are Iran-backed Shia militias: the Lebanese arm of Hezbollah and the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah (the Party of God Brigades), known in that part of the world mainly for bombing scores of American troops. Negotiations were eventually directed on the kidnappers’ side by the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Qassem Soleimani. The fact that the architect of Iran’s foreign military activities felt that it would improve the environment in which negotiations took place to insert himself into the picture, and that the Qataris appear in the text messages to be willing to accept him as a reasonable interlocutor, shows how much daylight there is between Western and Qatari perceptions of the regime in Tehran. In Washington and London, the Qataris were negotiating with designated terrorists. But in Doha, it was just diplomacy.
The story was a microcosm of an increasingly awkward situation unfolding in the Gulf right now, wherein Qatar is showing a growing fondness for the Iranians at the very moment that it is trying to protect its relationships in Europe and North America. The regime in Doha wants military and political backing from Iran, and so has made overtures in both the investment and security realms.
There has even been talk that it could share the 2022 World Cup with its Persian neighbor if, as looks likely, it fails to develop the necessary infrastructure in time. But these maneuvers are taking place at exactly the same time that the US administration is trying to place maximum pressure on the Iranians to return to the negotiating table over its expansionist (in terms of religion and influence more than territory) policies in the region.
The prime minister should make it clear that continued British political support, arms sales and investment protection are conditional on a foreign policy which better befits an ally.
Dr Majid Rafizade
Qatar is placing itself boldly between the US and Iran by offering the economic lifeline that may keep the latter afloat in a time of sanctions.
This undermines Britain’s interests in two important ways. First, Europeans have been working hard to mediate between the US and Iran. British intelligence services and foreign policy officials are privately very critical of Iran’s role in the region, but are more supportive publicly out of a fear that taking too hard a line will empower the extremists in Tehran.
The British and their European allies are hoping that US pressure will give Iran the incentive to negotiate, and that they can then retain the necessary trust to conduct those negotiations. Qatar’s political and economic lifelines to the Iranians will diminish this incentive and make talks less likely.
Second, Qatar’s willingness to do business with Iranian militias should concern Western officials immensely. They are not designated as terrorist groups for political reasons – but these groups routinely conduct attacks against civilians and finance insurgency against internationally recognized governments. If Doha believes that it can curry favor with Iran by dealing with these militias as partners rather than enemies, as it did in the ransom case, then it will be responsible for prolonged violence in the region as well as strengthening the IRGC, emboldening Iran’s overseas military operations and further weakening the prospects for negotiation.
The Qataris are heavily dependent on British support for their diplomatic strength and, to a lesser extent, economic prosperity. There is a reason why they have spent tens of millions lobbying in Britain since they were boycotted by other Arab states last June. Theresa May has a lot of leverage over the government there. So as the emir is paying his respects this week, the prime minister should make it clear that continued British political support, arms sales and investment protection are conditional on a foreign policy which better befits an ally: the Qataris must stop buttressing Iran’s position and discontinue their casual attitude towards activities that support and sustain terrorism. If they refuse, then the emir should not be invited back again.
• 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