Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, conducted a daylong visit to Iran on May 12. The Emir’s previous visit was in January 2020 amid the Iranian-U.S. tensions over the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani. Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said the visit was a follow-up to President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Qatar, and that the president will soon visit another Gulf State. Al Thani was the second leader of a regional state to visit Tehran, just a few days after the surprising May 8 visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Qatari Emir’s visit almost coincided with a visit by Enrique Mora, EU deputy secretary-general for foreign policy and coordinator of the Joint Commission for the nuclear agreement, who arrived in Iran a day earlier in a “last attempt” to salvage the Vienna nuclear talks. It seems that the main purpose of the Emir’s visit was to harness Qatar’s special regional and international posture—“a non-NATO ally of the United States”—and its improving relations with both the United States and Iran in a bid, likewise, to salvage the nuclear deal.
The Emir is then slated to visit France, Germany, and Britain. On the agenda will be the supply of gas to Europe—as well as the issue of the sanctions on Iran, amid the efforts to bring the United States back to the nuclear deal and the difficulties posed by Iran’s insistence on removing the Revolutionary Guards from the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) as the administration keeps vacillating on the issue.1
In Mora’s recent visit to Washington, he was told that the United States will not accede to Iran’s demand to drop the Revolutionary Guards from the list, to which it was added in the Trump years as part of the “maximal pressure” policy. During the Tehran visit, Mora was expected to present a compromise formula that is acceptable to Tehran, which, for its part, is signaling that it is prepared to continue the talks, subject to its conditions, and perhaps also to discuss the Revolutionary Guards issue separately. In any case, in the absence of an agreement, Iran is continuing to advance its nuclear program. EU Foreign Minister Joseph Borrell recently confirmed that Europe is seeking an interim formula that could unfreeze the talks and that Mora’s visit is the “last push” on the issue.
During his meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Al Thani raised the Palestinian issue in general and that of east Jerusalem in particular, saying that Arab states have failed to support the Palestinians:
The Arab world is expected to explicitly enter into political action against [Israel’s] open crimes.… Regarding that matter, some Arab countries[’] support for the Palestinians was even less than that of some European countries. They took no stance, and presently too, they’re continuing in the same way…. If Arab countries have adopted this position out of their fear of the Zionist regime or due to certain interests, they should know that today the Zionist regime is in a situation where there is no reason to fear it, nor can one expect to gain anything from it.2
Raisi was also present at the meeting. The Qatari Emir voiced support for the Palestinians, condemned the “horrific crimes of the Zionist” regime, and expressed deep regret over the killing of Doha-based Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin. He also said that Iran and Qatar had formed a joint committee to promote economic cooperation.
Al Thani also held a separate meeting with Raisi. In a joint press conference, the Iranian president reiterated Iran’s stance that the countries of the region should maintain regional security without “harmful foreign intervention.” Raisi termed the visit “a turning point in the relations between the two countries and the two nations.” For his part, the Qatari Emir said that his country supports the Vienna talks, while Raisi refrained from touching on the sensitive topic.
The Iranian media reported3 that in light of Al Thani’s visit, Ali bin Hamad Alsulaiti, Qatar’s ambassador to Tehran, discussed with Ali Salehabadi, governor of the Central Bank of Iran, the Iranian funds that are frozen in various countries. In this context, on April 29 Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied reports of an assassination attempt on the Qatari ambassador to Tehran. The foreign-news editor of the Tabnak website, which is affiliated with Mohsen Rezaee, chairman of the Expediency Council and former Revolutionary Guards commander, had tweeted about unverified reports of such an attempt.4
While Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards commanders keep taking a tough, uncompromising line on Iranian-U.S. tensions over the nuclear talks, some Iranian news sites that favor a more pragmatic, moderate approach toward the West expressed hope5 that the Qatari Emir’s visit would facilitate mediation between Tehran and Washington and furnish “a key to the lock on their relations.”
Iran’s official news agency IRNA asserted that the Emir also sought to improve Iranian-Saudi relations (so far the two have held five inconclusive rounds of talks in Iraq). A short time after Saudi Arabia and Iran severed diplomatic ties in January 2016, Qatar downgraded its relations with Iran and summoned the Iranian ambassador in Doha to protest the attack by Iranian extremists on the Saudi embassy and consulate buildings in Tehran and Mashhad. Yet, after the severe crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar emerged, Iran fully sided with Qatar and increased its food exports to the emirate after the Saudis imposed heavy sanctions on it.
Whereas Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are reducing ties with Tehran to the minimum, and the United Arab Emirates is intensely suspicious of Iran despite maintaining diplomatic relations with it, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman (where the nuclear talks with the United States leading to the 2015 deal began) prefer to conduct smooth relations with Tehran.
As part of its regional and international security strategy of maintaining good relations with most of the players, Qatar has long had friendly ties with Iran. Those ties have indeed grown since Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani took power, notwithstanding Iran’s hostility toward the continued U.S. military presence in Qatar (in the Al Udeid airbase) and in other Gulf States, particularly Bahrain. Qatar is also mediating between the United States and the Taliban, and U.S. diplomatic staff are still in Doha holding talks with the Taliban. Qatar also aided Afghan refugees during the U.S. forces’ departure from Afghanistan and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Turkish soldiers are present in Qatar as well.
Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, Qatar’s importance as a gas supplier and as a regional strategic partner that could, together with the United States, free Europe from dependence on Russian gas, and perhaps also as a mediator vis-á-vis Iran, has grown. As alluded to, President Biden dubbed it a non-NATO strategic ally (a status shared by 17 countries including Israel, Australia, and Japan) and noted Qatar’s extensive assistance to CENTCOM over the years as part of the two countries’ security cooperation. In light of Qatar’s new status, cooperation is likely to grow particularly in the security domain, and to involve exercises, military aid, and so on.6 Qatar’s relations with Hamas in Gaza and other Islamic movements in the region, and the extensive aid it provides for rehabilitating Gaza, some of it with Israeli approval, also raises its stock in U.S. eyes as a potential mediating factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On many occasions Iran has expressed satisfaction with Qatar’s refusal so far to join the Abraham Accords, which stems from its cautious and independent regional policy. During the meeting with Assad in Tehran on May 8, Khamenei again criticized the regional states that have normalized relations with Israel. Meanwhile the Gulf States that have not yet joined the Abraham Accords are conducting security-intelligence and economic ties with Israel.
Amid the tightening ties between Tehran and Doha after Raisi’s visit to Qatar, which occurred in the context of the OPEC energy conference, Iran also offered Qatar to promote tourism to Kish Island, which lies 270 kilometers from Doha, and other Iranian islands close to Qatar during the 2022 World Cup games in Doha scheduled for November 21 to December 18. On April 10, a meeting was held on Kish Island between Jassim bin Saif al-Sulaiti, the Qatari transportation minister, and his Iranian counterpart Rostam Qasemi aimed at coordinating aerial and maritime activity to promote Mondial tourism. Qatar is experiencing a huge increase in tourism that is expected to grow as the games approach.
The Iranian soccer team, considered one of the best in Asia since Iran joined FIFA in 1950, already reserved its place in Mondial 2022 some time ago. Iran is due to play in Group B, which also includes…the United States and England.
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4 https://twitter.com/Mostafa_Najafii/status/1519773743769219074; https://twitter.com/faresnews24/status/1520368083386441729