On Tuesday, the international media’s coverage of the Middle East was largely dominated by reporting on and discussion of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and a number of its fellow Arab states. Saudi Arabia and several of its regional partners broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar on Monday and also moved to isolate the country as completely as possible, grounding flights going to it from their own airports and cutting off land and sea routes as well.
The severance comes after more than a week of tensions stemming from apparent efforts by the Qatari government to encourage closer relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran at a time when the Gulf Arab states as a whole were increasingly orienting their foreign policies toward directly confronting and containing Tehran’s regional influence.
In May, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blocked Qatari media over reports in which the country’s emir supposedly called Iran an “Islamic power” and suggested that a regional strategy to combat terror and instability would have to include Tehran. Although the Qataris claimed that the reports had been the result of cyberattacks and were not genuine, the emir followed up by communicating directly with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the phone, in apparent defiance of Saudi efforts to curtail such outreach.
The remarks and the phone call came shortly after Saudi Arabia hosted an Arab summit that also saw the participation of US President Donald Trump, who has been engaged in his own efforts to contain Iran’s regional ambitions and reassert the traditionally adversarial relationship between America and the Iranian theocracy, which is regarded as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is still widely suspected of being in pursuit of a nuclear weapon, even after the agreement brokered by Trump’s predecessor in which Iran exchanged cuts to its nuclear enrichment program for tens of billions of dollars in relief from economic sanctions.
The Arab-US summit included several speeches and a final address that all directly called out the Islamic Republic over its contributions to regional instability and sectarian conflict. This built upon months of widely recognized escalations in the tensions between Iran and its longstanding regional adversaries. Drivers of those tensions include Iran’s sponsorship of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, its support for the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is establishing an increasingly prominent presence both directly and through proxies, and its refusal to participate in OPEC agreements limiting oil output as a bid to stabilize the market.
With all this in mind Saudi Arabia has abundant motive to enforce an anti-Iran policy among its neighbors and it also has the political cover to do so as a result of strengthened relations and new arms deals and trade agreements with the United States. The isolation of Qatar is aimed at this very sort of enforcement, and the Agence-France Presse report on the topic suggests that Qatar is ultimately going to be pressured into one of two outcomes: a turn back toward its Arab partners along with tacit endorsement of their anti-Iran strategy, or a more complete alignment with Tehran, at the expense of other partnerships. Meanwhile, a Bloomberg article claims that the Saudi-led strategy is not working to elicit the former outcome so far.
In theory, Qatar’s Arab isolation will have a punishing effect that will force it to seriously reconsider its regional posture. The vast majority of the country’s food supplies come from the routes that were closed off on Monday, and the Qatari people responded by stockpiling items and leaving grocery store shelves virtually bare in anticipation of a food crisis. There were immediate reports that some in-transit food shipments were turned away at the Saudi border. But Iran quickly stepped in to offer replacement food shipments and encourage the country to persist in its defiance.
ABC News reports that Qatar expressed that continued defiance on Tuesday by following the Saudis’ lead and cancelling all flights heading from Qatar to the Arab states that have participated in the isolation effort. Furthermore, Bloomberg reports that Qatar proceeded to re-route flights through Iran to avoid stopovers in the participating Arab states. It is a gesture that could be indicative of clear intent to replace existing connections to those states with new partnerships among Iran and its allies.
Two of the Gulf Arab states, Kuwait and Oman, have declined to sever ties with Qatar, and ABC News reported that Kuwaiti officials were evidently trying to act as mediators between the two sides. Additionally, Al Jazeera reports that while the other participants in the current Saudi-led partnership are helping in the effort to bring Qatar back into the fold, they still maintain cooperative relations with Iran itself, and are evidently unwilling to immediately change that fact to suit the shared anti-Iran policy.
Presumably that will have to change in time, for the shared policy to remain consistent. But in the meantime, Saudi Arabia and its allies appear to be heading off at least some accusations of double standards by focusing their criticism of Qatar on accusations that it has helped Iran’s regional proxies by directly supporting and financing the Houthi rebels, located on the Arabian Peninsula just south of Saudi.
This emphasis on issues of terrorism also highlights the close connections between the Saudi-led confrontation of Iran and the similar moves being made by the US, as well as the fact that these two trends are arguably collapsing into one. The Telegraph pointed out on Tuesday that even before the current flare-up between Qatar and its erstwhile Arab partners, the US had already accused the Qatari government of helping Al Qaeda groups in Libya and Syria. In addition, although the US Air Force maintains a base in Qatar, its largest in the region, the military has refused to share intelligence with the Qataris out of fear that it would end up in the hands of terrorist organizations, many of them already backed by Iran.
Eurasia Review further contributed to the discussion of the US role, or potential role, in the emerging diplomatic crisis. It noted that American lawmakers have introduced sanctions legislation aimed at putting pressure on Qatar over its support for Hamas and other extremist groups. Such efforts may have set the stage for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s implicit endorsement of Qatar’s regional isolation.
The Eurasia Review report quoted him as saying, “I think what we’re witnessing is a growing list of some irritants in the region that have been there for some time. And obviously they have now bubbled up to a level that countries decided they needed to take action in an effort to have those differences addressed.”
As well as supporting the Saudi-led effort, such commentary also implicitly suggests that the US and the leading Arab powers recognize the same negative trends in the Middle East, and share at least broadly similar views on how to confront them. This does not, however, mean that the other partners of each of those countries recognize the same trends or are willing to act in concert. As mentioned above, some Arab nations have resisted the isolation of Qatar and others are continuing to straddle both sides of the Saudi-Iran divide. In addition to this, much of Europe is resisting the recent shift in US policy toward more direct confrontation of Iran, in large part because of the hope for investment deals in the Iranian oil industry as well as other fields.
In this sense, the US and Saudi Arabia have the potential to mutually see each other through the implementation of current strategies. And this is especially true in light of the fact that, according to the Eurasia Review report, the current Saudi-led campaign against Iran is different from previous ones because it specifically “aims to force non-Arab states to take sides in a four-decades old proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has escalated in recent years, and persuade the Trump administration to come down hard on Qatar because of its refusal to join the anti-Iranian Saudi bandwagon and its ties to Islamist and militant groups.”
There is good reason to believe that the Trump administration is already willing to take this step, assuming that it serves the broader goal of isolating Iran and denying it the funding for its longstanding sponsorship of global terror. Various recent reports have observed that the trajectory of US policy in the region is trending toward the explicit endorsement of regime change in Iran. And this speculation intensified last week with the appointment of Michael D’Andrea as the head of Iran operations for the Central Intelligence Agency.
This goal was already endorsed by Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the US, last year when he attended the annual Paris gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The event regularly sees the attendance of European dignitaries, highlighting a political undercurrent that could be strengthened by coordinate Arab and American efforts to personally confront Iran and also to turn other countries away from existing or potential partnerships with the Islamic Republic.