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Qatar and Iran

The Qataris deeply distrust Iran and oppose that neighbor's nuclear weapons program. Qatar recognizes the danger Iran poses to the stability of the region. Qatar strongly opposes Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons, but the Gulf would suffer from any military action taken against Iran, so it must be avoided. But sharing the third largest natural gas reserves in the world with Iran obliges the Qatari leadership to maintain a "working relationship" with Tehran.

Since the Iranian revolution, Iran and Qatar have maintained positive relations, in spite of periodswhen Iran's relationships with the Arab Gulf states otherwise foundered, such as during the Iran-Iraq war and tanker war of the 1980s. Qatari officials have met frequently with members of Iran's government in Iran and in Qatar in recent years, and the Qatari government regularly advocatesfor increased dialogue between the GCC states, other Arab states, and Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad attended the December 2007 GCC summit in Doha at the invitation of Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. He also attended a January 2009 summit on Gaza sponsored by the emir. The emir in turn visited Iran in November 2009 for consultations on bilateral and regional issues. In a March 2009 interview with a German newspaper, the emir explained Qatar's current perspective on the region and on Iran by saying,

"We are a small country and we can live with anything around us. We will not be an enemyto anybody, but of course we will not allow anybody to use us against others. We will not,for example, stand with America against Iran. For sure. Iran never bothered us, it never created a problem for us... It will be hard for the Gulf countries to be with Iran against the United States. And I believe Iran knows this."

These remarks, coupled with Qatari decisions to host Iranian leaders and to encourage Arab solidarity with Hamas during the January 2009 Gaza war led some observers to argue that Qatar was working in opposition to the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and in favor of Iran. Qatari officials reject analyses that divide the region into opposing camps and argue that engagement, dialogue, and collective approaches to regional security problems between Arab states and Iran may offer opportunities to avert further tension and conflict. These arguments and positions are consistent with the Qatar' government's reputation for favoring independent policies and attempting to assert a leadership role consistent with its growing economic clout, in spite of its small population and very limited military capabilities.

Qatar's foreign policy priorities reflect its leaders' desire to maintain their country's independence, security, and freedom of action among more powerful competing regional and international actors, including the United States. Like other Arab Gulf states, Qatar's economic growth and diversification is in many ways dependent on the maintenance of stability in the Gulf region. Thus it views potential conflict, whether initiated by Iran or by others, as undesirable.

Statements from Qatari leaders suggest that Doha views Iran as an ascendant regional power that cannot be ignored or fully contained by non-military means, and thus Qatar prioritizes engagement with Iran and its potential adversaries. Qatar's diplomatic activities, includingits mediation of Lebanon's political deadlock in early 2008 and its advocacy on behalf of Hamas in January 2009, have been viewed by many regional observers as consistent with Iran's priorities, although Qatari leaders have described their regional diplomacy as driven by traditional Arab nationalist concerns. In July 2006, Qatar was the sole member of the United Nations Security Council to oppose Security Council Resolution 1696, which called on Iran to "suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to beverified by the IAEA," and proposed potential sanctions should Iran refuse.

According to the IMF, the value of Iranian-Qatari trade was estimated at $57 million in 2007 and$75 million in 2008.14 Iran and Qatar share the large North Field/South Pars natural gas depositoff the Qatari coast. Most of the gas in the field lies in Qatar's territorial waters (approximately 900 trillion cubic feet), with Iran's waters possessing the remainder (approximately 280 trillioncubic feet). Qatar's share of the field is the basis for the country's status as holding the third largest natural gas reserves in the world. Qatari liquefied natural gas exports brought an estimated $35.6 billion in export revenue to the country in 2008.

With small and lightly equipped armed forces, Qatar effectively relies upon the U.S. armed forces stationed in the country for its defense. However, the presence of U.S. forces also creates a potential flashpoint vis-a-vis Iran; in the event of U.S.-Iranian hostilities, U.S. military facilities in Qatar would be critical for U.S. command and control purposes and thus could be likely targets of Iranian attack. The Chief of Staff of the Qatari Armed Forces Major General Hamad bin Ali alAttiyah travelled to Iran in July 2009 and held security talks with Iranian defense officials,including the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Qatar's public support for the Iranian regime adds an important caveat to the public and private efforts by Qatar's leaders to enhance strategic relations with the United States. But Qatar's highly public rhetorical support for Iran should also be seen as an expression of Qatar's strong desire for a stable strategic environment and for a working relationship with Iran that ensures Qatar's continued freedom to exploit the two countries' shared gas field, the largest non-associated gas field in the world. Qatar's leaders do not see their active public support for Iran as contradicting their self-described "strategic alignment" with the United States. Rather, they see their public expressions of support for Iran as a necessary hedge to protect Qatar's vital economic interests.

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Page last modified: 29-12-2012 19:36:23 ZULU