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Qatar Punched Above Its Weight. Now It’s Paying the Price.
Qatar Punched Above Its Weight. Now It’s Paying the Price.
Ayatollah Khamenei receives Iranian officials, ambassadors of Muslim countries, on 18 May 2015. khamenei.ir
Report 166 / Middle East & North Africa

Iran After the Nuclear Deal

Some in the West hope the nuclear deal with Iran will empower the country’s moderates. But playing Iranian domestic politics directly could backfire. The West should recognise that any change will be gradual, best supported by implementing the nuclear accord, resuming trade, and diplomacy that balances Iranian and Arab interests in the Middle East.

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Executive Summary

With the nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers in force, a chief question is what it means for Iran. The clash between competing visions of the country’s future has heightened since the deal. Many, there and abroad, believe it could rebalance domestic politics. It not only has boosted the profile of those who promoted it, but, more fundamentally, it has opened space for new debates in a domestic sphere that was dominated by the nuclear issue for more than a decade. Yet, the political system, with its multiple power centres and tutelary bodies, inherently favours continuity. As its guardians try to quell the deal’s reverberations and preserve the balance of power, any attempt by Western countries to play politics within the Iranian system – for instance by trying to push it in a “moderate” direction – could well backfire. If world powers hope to progress on areas of concern and common interest, they must engage Iran as it is, not the Iran they wish to see. To start, all sides should fulfil their commitments under the nuclear deal.

The accord comes at a sensitive moment. Over eighteen months, three pivotal elections are scheduled. February 2016 will see polls for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, whose key mandate is to choose the next supreme leader; in June 2017, there will be a presidential poll. With the supreme leader aging, many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course. President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Tensions within the Islamic Republic stem in no small part from its blend of popular sovereignty and religious authority. Theocratic forces seek to maintain the dominance of the supreme leader and other tutelary bodies, while republican forces advocate more clout for popularly-elected institutions. Each camp is further split between pragmatists who seek incremental political evolution and radicals who either resist any change or promote revolutionary transformation. The supreme leader – powerful but not omnipotent – maintains stability by accommodating both theocratic and republican trends. But his affiliation with the former makes for a balancing act that is as complex as it is imperfect.

The precariousness of this equilibrium means that policy shifts when pressure from below is accompanied by substantial consensus at the top. The nuclear talks illustrate this. Rouhani’s election and the sanctions-battered public’s demand for normalcy catalysed the process, but the agreement was not a single man’s achievement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had endorsed bilateral negotiations with the U.S. before Rouhani ran for office. He then supported the new president’s diplomatic push and kept his opponents at bay. But given the leader’s aversion to risk, his support was qualified and did not obviate Rouhani’s need for a coalition with other power centres.

The president, who is from the republican camp, brought on board the most important allies: the pragmatic theocrats, who control the unelected institutions. Almost every powerful group had a say in the accord, which reflected a national, strategic decision to turn the page on the nuclear crisis even as concern remains over the world powers’ commitment. The establishment appears as determined to implement the deal as it was to seeing the negotiations through – and largely for the same reason: to resuscitate the economy by removing sanctions, either as envisioned in the accord or by showing that Iran is not to blame for failure.

Rouhani has encountered difficulties in other spheres. He was forced to freeze priorities behind which he could not generate sufficient consensus, including social and political liberalisation. But his economic agenda, aimed at stimulating growth after several years of recession, is likely to move forward, even though it damages entrenched interests that have profited under the sanctions regime.

Everything suggests Rouhani will continue with a prudent approach, and change is likely to be arduous, slow and modest. Though the U.S. and its European allies might nudge him to move faster, there is no way to speed the reform process and many ways to undermine it. Seeking to empower republicans – touted in certain quarters as a potential by-product of the nuclear deal – will not work, as many theocrats view that tactic as a stalking horse for regime change.

This does not mean giving Tehran carte blanche, domestically or regionally, but issues of concern will need to be addressed judiciously, taking account of Tehran’s legitimate concerns no less than its adversaries’. It also means Iranians – notwithstanding the imperfection of their governance system, which many are the first to acknowledge – should determine their country’s positions without undue external interference. Trying to shape Tehran’s regional calculus through a variety of carrots and sticks is standard foreign policy practice, but trying to shape or short-circuit the decision-making process itself is another matter. As seen in the nuclear deal and now in the economic realm, internal consensus, reached through a credible domestic process, is the only stable basis for progress.

The best option for Western states and Iran is to continue reversing the negative narratives from decades of suspicion and hostility by fully implementing the nuclear accord; creating discrete and non-politicised channels to address other issues of concern or common interest; and, eventually, pushing for regional security architecture that takes account of both Iranian and Arab interests. In the end, Iran and the West may not be able to agree on a range of issues, but trying to game the Iranian system will ensure that they will not.

Tehran/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 December 2015

Qatar Punched Above Its Weight. Now It’s Paying the Price.

Originally published in The New York Times

Doha has become a casualty of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ fights with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. But don’t expect a war.

Despite shrill rhetoric and a punishing embargo, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf do not threaten to pile another war onto a conflict-ridden Middle East. The dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side and Qatar on the other is of long standing and — hyperbolic headlines aside — remains largely unchanged today.

What has changed is the opportunity the Saudis and Emiratis see, with a new friend in the White House, to remove an obstacle in their path toward tackling two more potent adversaries: Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Their threats and intimidation may bring an adjustment in Qatar’s behavior, but the two countries’ inherent weakness and the differences between them militate against further escalation.

Citing Qatar’s support of “terrorists” — a now commonly used label for one’s political opponents, in addition to jihadist groups — Qatar’s two partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council broke off diplomatic relations on June 5 and imposed a land and air blockade that left the small nation with only a single access route for essential supplies.

What had it done to provoke such ire?

Qatar has sought to parlay the financial muscle it derives from its enormous gas reserves into a diplomatic status otherwise undeserved by its size. The country’s foreign ministry is small, as I have discovered on my visits over the years, but surprisingly assertive. A decade ago, Qatar inserted itself as mediator into a number of conflicts, including the post-2006 rivalry between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, the Yemeni government’s multiple rounds of fighting against Houthi insurgents from 2003 to 2009, and Sudan’s unending internal wars. It seemed like not a week could pass without a set of meetings taking place in one of Doha’s glittering hotels, overtly or in secret, bringing together adversaries from Palestine, Afghanistan or Lebanon, who were happy to have the opportunity for some rest and relaxation far from the battlefield, even if they made little progress in negotiating peace.

Qatar was punching above its weight, but because it constituted no real threat to anyone, its larger, even richer and far more powerful neighbor to the west, Saudi Arabia, tolerated its upstart behavior, contenting itself with pursuing a dollar-driven foreign policy of its own that involved little diplomacy. The two have had a rocky relationship — a couple of coup attempts in Doha, occasional border skirmishes — but to Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been an irritant at most, a slightly errant G.C.C. ally, an annoying adolescent to be admonished, not flogged.

With the turmoil of the Arab Spring, everything changed. As autocrats fell like dominoes, the Saudi royal family, along with the Arab world’s other monarchies, realized they might be next. The counterrevolution was hatched in Riyadh. Its first and primary target: the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Mr. Morsi was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that proved to be the sole cohesive, organized and disciplined political force capable of replacing the crumbling Arab regimes.

The Muslim Brotherhood received strong backing from Qatar, whose pre-2011 neutral-mediator stance gave way to enthusiastic support of a movement it saw as a winner. The country hosted the leader of Hamas, the movement’s Palestinian branch, who had been ejected from Damascus. Mr. Morsi’s ouster by the Saudi-backed Egyptian military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013 reversed the Brotherhood’s political gains throughout the region.

The second principal beneficiary of the failed Arab uprisings, but one whose fortunes have continued to wax, is Iran. Having gained an important foothold in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal in 2003, Iran further extended its reach as Syria descended into chaos after 2011, coming to President Bashar al-Assad’s rescue.

Saudi Arabia has watched Iran’s ascendancy with growing alarm, accusing Tehran of nurturing hegemonic ambitions long bottled up by international sanctions, which were lifted after the 2015 nuclear deal. The Saudis now believe Iran is taking advantage of its new international standing and resulting access to business and investments by ramping up its military role and support in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The arrival of President Trump in the White House and his appointment of senior officials who, along with many in the House and Senate, despise the nuclear deal and favor continued enmity with Iran now offer the Saudis the chance to confront Iran by proxy — the proxy being the United States military.

But there stands pesky little Qatar, unwilling to move out of the way. Never mind that Qatar has never contradicted Saudi policy on Iran, and indeed has stayed on the Saudis’ side in both Syria and Yemen — directly opposite Iran. Qatar, along with other small Gulf states, has maintained cordial relations with its Iranian neighbor. (Qatar in particular values good relations with Iran because the two countries share a giant offshore gas field in the Gulf.) And even if Doha sees Riyadh as a bully that, by dint of geography, it has no choice but to put up with and, if need be, appease, it still far prefers the Saudis to Iran.

The emir of Qatar need not worry too much that the current kerfuffle will get out of hand. His Gulf allies-turned-adversaries have diverging interests in their pursuit of his absolute compliance with their diktat.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. is known much less for its anti-Iran stance than for its animus against the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sees as a domestic rival. It has jailed its members at home and fought them abroad: in Libya, in particular, but also in Yemen, where the U.A.E. has actively opposed the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah party, which is participating in the Emiratis’ and Saudis’ battle against the Houthis in support of the ousted Yemeni government. And in Tunisia, where the Emiratis are trying to break the fragile unity government that includes the moderate Islamist An-Nahda party.

In fact, the U.A.E. may be blocking Qataris from entering the Emirates under the blockade, but Iranians and their investments remain warmly welcome. Meanwhile, the Saudis are far more concerned about Iran’s growing role in the region, especially in Yemen, and unlike the U.A.E. are willing to work with Islah to defeat the Houthis and thereby push back Iran.

The Saudis and Emiratis each have their reasons for trying to press Qatar back in line, but their clashing priorities and alliances, and their inability to field their own militaries in yet another war, weaken the impact of their threats.

It is now up to the other small Gulf states like Kuwait or Oman to play a mediating role and help find a face-saving formula for both sides. The Saudis and Emiratis could lower their demands and pressure on Qatar, in exchange, for example, for Qatar toning down its public support of the Brotherhood. Incongruous as it may sound, even the Trump administration, in its confusion and contradictory responses, might be able to help diffuse the crisis.

Hopefully, this dispute will soon prove to have been little more than a tempest in a teapot. It’s just that the teapot happens to be the Gulf, an area whose very name (Arabian or Persian) is in dispute and where one false move, one miscommunication, one misread signal could set in motion unstoppable forces that would do a great deal more harm to Saudi-Emirati interests than Qatar could dream of doing on its own — should it even be so inclined.