The following overview was written in connection with a Middle East Forum conference, "Qatar: U.S. Ally or Global Menace," taking place in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 6, 2019. To watch it live-streamed, click here.
Relations between Qatar and Iran have drawn closer in recent years, and there is reason to expect that the current closeness is set to deepen still further in the period ahead. Qatar appears set to continue to defy the demands of its fellow Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding Doha's vocal support for Sunni Islamist terrorism. Continued consequent isolation makes the Iranian connection vital for Qatar.
However, the picture, as we shall see, is not straightforward. The relationship between Iran and Qatar is multi-faceted, and is also beset with contradictions. The latter derive in the main from the ambiguous regional stance of Qatar, which seeks to simultaneously maintain correct relations with the west, a deepening connection to Iran, and support for Sunni political Islam, in particular in its Muslim Brotherhood form.
The Emirate of Qatar and the Islamic Republic of Iran maintain full diplomatic relations. A key element underlying their relations is close economic cooperation. Both countries are members of OPEC. Teheran and Doha have a shared interest in the exploitation of the South Pars/North Dome Gas Condensate Field, which is located in the area adjoining both states – and which is the largest natural gas field in the world. Qatar is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and produces up to 77 million tonnes of gas each year.
In addition, the diplomatic stance favored by Qatar over the last two decades – namely support for Sunni political Islam, particularly in its Muslim Brotherhood form, and its consequent rivalry with western-aligned Gulf states such as United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – has in recent years pushed Doha towards closer relations with Iran. This latter dynamic is also influenced by Doha's deteriorating relations with other Gulf states (deriving from its support for Islamist radicalism) and its deepening ties with Turkey over the last two years.
Relations between Iran and Qatar on the diplomatic and strategic level are not straightforward, for two reasons: Qatar is the host for the largest US air base in the Middle East, the al-Udeid base, home to 10000 US service personnel.
Also, Qatar's support for the Sunni political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood does not make it an automatic fit for Iran, whose main support is among Shia and minority communities and which promotes its own brand of Shia political and revolutionary Islam.
This led, for example, to Iran and Qatar backing different sides in the Syrian civil war. Yet in the current period, with the Muslim Brotherhood significantly weakened on the regional level, the Syrian rebellion close to defeat, and Doha facing repercussions from its fellow GCC countries for its support for radicalism, Qatar has been moving over the last 18 months sharply in the direction of closer relations with Teheran.
The nature and level of diplomatic relations between Iran and Qatar have varied since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Doha supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, sharing the consensus view maintained by Gulf states at that time. However, unlike Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which offered substantial financial support to Iraq, seeing it as a bulwark against the aggression of a non-Arab and non-Sunni power, Qatar sought to placate both parties, in order to avoid being drawn into the conflict.
Following the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, Doha established full bilateral ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa subsequently became a powerful voice within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) arguing for closer Gulf relations with Iran. At this time, however, Qatar did not allow its relations with Teheran to harm its ties with fellow GCC countries. Indeed, when forced to choose – as in the ongoing dispute between UAE and Iran over ownership of the Abu Musa and Tunb islands, Qatar sided with the UAE's position, evidently placing its ties with its fellow GCC countries at that time higher in its list of priorities than its relations with Iran.
Qatar's strategy of support for the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam essentially began in the mid-90s, when the launch of the al-Jazeera satellite channel made such a strategy relevant.
The Muslim Brotherhood were present in Qatar prior to this, and members of the movement formed a significant cohort among educators brought into Qatar in the 1950s and 1960s (alongside individuals of Arab nationalist persuasion). But only with the launching of al-Jazeera did the systematic strategy of using support for Brotherhood associated movements in order to build Qatar's regional influence come into being. This strategy reached its apogee in the 'Arab Spring' period of 2010-2015.
Relations between Shia Iran and the Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be noted, are not straightforward. Common enmity towards Israel formed the basis of the strong relations built up since the early 1990s between Teheran and the Hamas movement which emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. But during the Arab Spring, the Brotherhood and Iran found themselves on separate sides, as the former, with Qatari financial aid and media support, sought to establish a rival, Sunni Islamist regional power bloc. Since this effort was a comprehensive failure, branches of the Brotherhood and Qatar have been once more seeking to draw closer to Iran, based on a common opposition to the US, Israel and the regional order. It is within this context that the currently warming relations between Qatar and Iran should be understood.
Qatar's recent turn toward Iran
Efforts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in mid-2017 to isolate Qatar for its support for Islamist radicalism have resulted in Qatar deepening its relations with Iran. Teheran sought to use the crisis to deepen the rift between the Gulf states. Iran kept food supplies continued to be sent to Qatar from the port of Bushehr, enabling Doha to avoid complete isolation. Iran sent 1,100 tons of fruit and vegetables and 66 tons of beef, to Qatar on a daily basis. On 25 June, 2017, Iranian president Rouhani denounced the "siege" on Qatar, and in a phone call with Emir Tamim, said that "Tehran will stand by Qatar's government".
The volume of trade between the countries has subsequently grown rapidly. Qatar has also been able to use Iranian airspace (at a price). The intervention of Iran has enabled Qatar to resist attempts by Saudi Arabia and UAE to cause it to desist from support for terrorist and radical Islamist organizations, or to cease its propaganda against other Gulf states via al-Jazeera.
In return, Qatar has made clear that it will take no part in sanctions or other efforts against Iran. Qatari Defense Minister Khalid al Attiyah in June 2018 expressed Qatar's objections to any campaign against Iran in the following terms: "Is it wise to call the United States and to call Israel to go and fight Iran? ... Whether any third party is trying to push the region or some country in the region to start a war in Iran, this will be very dangerous... Iran is next door. We should call Iran, put all the files on the table and start to discuss to bring peace rather than war.' Attiyah in this speech also affirmed Qatar's continued support for the JCPOA.
The economic dimension
As noted above, Qatar's stance toward Iran is also informed by economic considerations. The South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate Field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet (51 trillion cubic metres) of in-situ natural gas and some 50 billion barrels (7.9 billion cubic metres) of natural gas condensates. This makes it the largest natural gas field in the world. Indeed, it has almost as much recoverable gas reserves as all other natural gas fields in the world combined.
North Dome is the part of the field that Qatar is developing, and consists of two thirds of the entire field. South Pars is being developed by Iran and covers the remaining third of the field. In April 2017, Qatar ended a 12 year moratorium on the development of the North Dome field.
Qatar hopes to increase gas export capacity by a third in the period ahead. This gives Doha an added incentive not to take part in actions against Iran, which could provoke the revival of old disputes by Teheran regarding the division of the field, or even in more extreme circumstances Iranian disruption of Qatari production and exports and blocking of further development. In such a situation, Qatar would be essentially defenceless against Iran.
Qatar's attempt to raise its regional profile through the backing of radical, particularly Sunni Islamist forces, has succeeded in enabling Doha to punch above its weight diplomatically, but it has produced little of lasting tangible impact. Doha's confrontational and unorthodox approach has also triggered a determined response from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, at a time when it would be in the interest of the Gulf monarchies to stand together against both the looming threat of Iran and the ongoing challenge of Sunni political Islam, in both its Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi jihadi manifestations.
Qatar's regional strategy is based on precarious and contradictory foundations. The emirate suppresses Islamist activity within its own territory, while partnering with Islamist forces elsewhere – not because of a deep or genuine affiliation, but in order to inflate Qatari regional influence.
This approach is now creating major contradictions and problems for Qatar: specifically, as the US seeks to build a regional response to Iranian aggression and hegemonic ambitions, Qatar finds itself in the untenable position of wishing neither to cooperate with the US, nor to truly ally with anti-US regional forces. The contradictions and implausibility of this stance are currently manifesting themselves.
Jonathan Spyer is a writer, analyst and journalist focusing on the Levant and Middle East strategic affairs. He is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS), a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a freelance security analyst and correspondent at IHS Janes. Spyer is the Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA).