Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Qatar Punched Above Its Weight. Now It’s Paying the Price.
Qatar Punched Above Its Weight. Now It’s Paying the Price.
Iran Unites as Tehran Struck by Middle East’s Proxy Wars
Iran Unites as Tehran Struck by Middle East’s Proxy Wars

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.

Members of Iranian forces take position during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, on 7 June 2017. TIMA/Omid Vahabzadeh.

Iran Unites as Tehran Struck by Middle East’s Proxy Wars

The 7 June attacks in Tehran struck at the symbolic heart of Iran’s revolutionary republic. In this Q&A, Ali Vaez, Senior Analyst for Iran, says the outrages show how the region’s proxy wars are now reaching far beyond the battlefield.

How unusual are these attacks for Iran?

If this indeed was, as it claimed, an attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it would constitute the first time the organisation has been able to strike Iran inside its borders. But terrorist attacks are not new to Iran. In the early years of revolutionary turmoil, the leftist-Islamist Mojahedin Khalq (MEK) resorted to violence. In the 1980s, up to 120 terrorist attacks occurred in Tehran perpetrated by MEK and other violent groups, killing hundreds of Iranian officials, including the president and prime minister in August 1981. Even the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was targeted. He survived the assassination attempt, but lost full use of his right hand.

Consequently, the Islamic Republic developed a powerful counter-terrorism capacity through intelligence and security forces that, along with its paramilitary Basij militia, turned Iran into one of the most stable countries in the region – at the cost of highly repressive methods. The only exception to Iran’s successful counter-terrorism record was the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists at the height of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But those were targeted assassinations as opposed to indiscriminate terrorist attacks.

The targets seem to have been chosen in order to maximise political impact rather than fatalities.

That ISIS had failed to attack Iran up until now wasn’t for lack of trying. There have been multiple reports of foiled attacks in several Iranian cities. According to Iranian officials, Iran’s intelligence agencies detected and dismantled 58 ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups in the past few years. In March 2016, the Iranian army reported killing two alleged ISIS recruits in the western province of Kermanshah. In June 2016, Iranian media reported the arrest of eighteen people who were trying to recruit new members through social media. In August that year, the Iranian intelligence minister said that authorities had prevented 1,500 young Iranians from joining ISIS. In recent months there was an uptick in its propaganda against Tehran as ISIS published a rare video in Persian in March, encouraging Iran’s Sunni minority to wage a religious war against the Shia ruling elite.

The attacks are in all likelihood linked to the extreme sectarianism of the fighting in Iraq and Syria. Iran, a Shiite Muslim power, is heavily involved in both conflicts. Salafi and Sunni Muslim groups like ISIS have long heaped vitriol on the Shiites.

In this sense, it’s not the attacks that are surprising, it’s that Iran was able to avoid one for so long. The attacks were a wake-up call for Iran’s security apparatus, but so too will they probably serve as one for jihadists, who will be encouraged to exploit Iran’s vulnerabilities.

What’s the immediate impact of this attack?

There are different voices coming out of Tehran. Some in the leadership have sought to downplay the attacks. The supreme leader said the “terrorists fumbling with fire crackers” won’t affect Iran, while the speaker of the parliament, where twelve people were killed and many were injured, called them a “trivial incident”. The Revolutionary Guards, however, have vowed revenge, drawing an unsubstantiated link between the attacks and a joint Saudi-U.S. effort to push back against Tehran’s regional policies. The minister of intelligence, however, has said it is too early to blame the Saudis. Nevertheless, the harsh rhetoric on both sides is likely to exacerbate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and further diminish the already slim chance of any kind of reconciliation anytime soon.

The attacks could better enable the Revolutionary Guards to resist [Rouhani] and crack down on internal dissent.

Still, I don’t see any immediate escalation of friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Neither the leadership in Tehran nor the one in Riyadh appears keen on a direct confrontation. Still, with increased tensions, there is higher likelihood of miscalculation on both sides. And of course, all of this fuels sectarianism in the region, which is a gift to ISIS and al-Qaeda.

What was the symbolism of the chosen targets?

The targets seem to have been chosen in order to maximise political impact rather than fatalities. The assailants targeted two key symbolic pillars of the Islamic Republic, the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s theocratic system, and the parliament, the centre of the country’s republican tradition. Assuming that ISIS was the perpetrator, it is striking that it claimed responsibility for the attack immediately rather than wait as it usually does. This is probably because it considers the attack a rare success as it rapidly loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

 What do you think the domestic impact will be?

Initially at least the attacks are likely to rally Iranians around the flag, but this could change quickly depending on two key questions: first, will anybody in Iran use the event politically, and how? Secondly, how were the perpetrators able to carry out these attacks?

President Rouhani is fresh from an election in which he received a strong mandate to deliver on his promise of de-securitising the domestic sphere. The attacks, however, could better enable the Revolutionary Guards to resist him and crack down on internal dissent. If Rouhani succeeds in quickly creating consensus around a path forward that would rectify security loopholes, while tolerating a higher degree of political pluralism, he might be able to prevent a counterproductive blame game and deeper polarisation. This could be done through the Supreme National Security Council, which comprises key civilian and military leaders and takes all key national security decisions in Iran. Given Rouhani’s extensive experience in the country’s national security establishment, he has the know-how to achieve this goal. But at this stage, it is too early to tell whether he will succeed or not.

The answer to the second question is becoming increasingly clear. According to Iranian officials, the perpetrators appear to be ISIS recruits from Iran’s Sunni majority provinces, who had fought for the group in Mosul and Raqqa. This could be used as a pretext to crack down in the country’s western, south-western, and south-eastern frontier provinces where Iran’s 5-10 per cent Sunni population lives. While there is little support for jihadists among Iran’s Sunni populations, despite their discontent with their treatment by central authorities, a government crackdown – if harsh enough and pursued long enough – is the kind of thing that could change that. The single most relevant factor in the radicalisation of jihadists is harsh government treatment. Interestingly, turnout in recent presidential elections was high in majority Sunni provinces like Sistan-Balouchestan (75 per cent) and Kurdistan (59 per cent). They both overwhelmingly (73 per cent) voted for the more pragmatic candidate, Rouhani.

It appears that the Trump administration ... is succeeding where the Islamic Republic failed in the past 38 years: turning Iranians against the U.S.

What has been the reaction in the region?

Some countries like Turkey, Oman and Qatar denounced the attacks, but others like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had a muted response. Some will see a comeuppance for a country that has freely interfered and stoked sectarianism in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere, until now without a backlash inside its borders. The recent attacks represent a different sort of backlash as well. Iran – like every state in the region – has pulled its punches with jihadists, including al-Qaeda, so long as their guns were turned against Iran’s enemies. But tactical relations with these groups often entail collateral damage.

What has been the reaction in the rest of the world?

The U.S. State Department condemned the attacks in strong terms; but President Trump added insult to injury by underscoring that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”. On the same days as the attacks, the U.S. Congress also voted to advance sanctions legislation against Iran, particularly targeting the Revolutionary Guards. Iranian foreign minister retorted on Twitter: “Repugnant [White House] statement & Senate sanctions as Iranians counter terror backed by U.S. clients. Iranian people reject such U.S. claims of friendship”.

Following social media in Iran, I was struck by how much Washington’s insensitivity has offended the Iranian public. For years, Iran watchers were baffled by how pro-American the Iranian people remained despite having a highly anti-American government and being exposed to anti-American propaganda for nearly four decades. It appears that the Trump administration, first with its travel ban, then with hostile rhetoric and now with this statement, is succeeding where the Islamic Republic failed in the past 38 years: turning Iranians against the U.S.

For their part, the European and Asian leaders didn’t hesitate to do the right thing and condemned the attacks in Tehran no less strongly than they do attacks anywhere else. The attacks are a reminder that the effects of the region’s ongoing proxy wars are felt far beyond the battlefield. ISIS’s recent losses notwithstanding, so long as those wars and sectarian demonisation continue, we should expect more tragedies of this nature.