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Iran approaches Qatar crisis with caution

Shabnam von Hein
June 14, 2017

The Qatar crisis has infected the country's relations with Iran. Despite a recent rapprochement between the two Gulf states, Iran is noticeably taking a back seat in the diplomatic tussle.

Qatar's flag
Image: picture alliance/robertharding/F. Fell

"The situation in the Gulf region is very unpredictable. We don't need any more turmoil," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Monday, adding that extra tension could lead to disaster.

Iranian media have been reporting very carefully on the Qatar crisis, likely an indication of widespread concern in Tehran about the possibility of a new war in the Persian Gulf.

In the middle of Muslim holy month of Ramadan, several Arab countries, under Saudi leadership, decided at the start of last week to impose a blockade on Qatar. They accused the country of financially supporting terrorist groups. The Qatari peninsula's land border was closed, and flights from Arab states to the capital, Doha, were suspended, effectively cutting off supply routes to a country that is almost completely dependent on imported food and drinking water.

Read more: Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar vs. Iran

Shortly after the embargo began, an Iranian trade association offered to jump into the breach, saying it could supply needed goods to Qatar within 12 hours. Yet, Iran was slow to deliver supplies to its neighbor on the other side of the Gulf. It was almost a week after the crisis began that five planes took off for Qatar, bringing 90 tons of fresh food.

A shelf of yogurt in a Qatari supermarket
Shelves have largely refilled in QatarImage: picture-alliance/AA/M. Farag

"It's a precarious situation. The reform-oriented government in Tehran is, therefore, acting very cautiously," said Ali Sadrzade, an expert on Iran with Germany's state broadcaster in Hesse. "This first delivery to Qatar was also a symbolic act."

Sadrzade added that supermarket shelves in Qatar had long since been replenished with goods from Turkey.

 Iran-friendly sentiment as cause for crisis

Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, has little interest in getting mixed up in a fight between Sunni kingdoms in the Persian Gulf. That's also because of reports that a fake news story planted on Qatar's state news agency website possibly sparked the crisis. According to the news article, Qatari leader Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani described Iran as an "Islamic power" and said "an adversarial relationship with Iran made no sense" - a statement that did not go over well in Saudi Arabia.

The Iran-friendly statements from Qatar's leader may have been faked, but his cordial phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wasn't. Al Thani phoned Rouhani to congratulate him on his reelection victory shortly afterUS President Donald Trump delivered his May 21 speech in Riyadh that was highly critical of Iran. The call put Qatar out of line with other countries in the region, just one day after Saudi Arabia, with Trump's support, declared a front against Iran's influence.

 In his phone call with the Iranian president, Al Thani is reported to have stressed that the current problems could only be resolved with dialogue and negotiations. The conciliatory tone has clearly contributed to the current tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, whichseveral countries have offered their help in mediating.

 Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strained since Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran regards itself as the protecting power of Shiite Muslims; Saudi Arabia as that of Sunnis. The countries compete for influence in several Arab states. In the Syria conflict, Tehran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Riyadh supports the armed opposition. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is leading a war against the Houthi rebels and labeling them Tehran's puppets.

Tense ties despite rapprochement

Despite their supposed rapprochement, there is still little trust between Qatar and Iran. The two countries share a 250-kilometer-long sea border, where they share the world's largest natural gas field, South Pars. This has already led to conflict. When Iran was under wide-reaching sanctions over its controversial nuclear program, making it unable to act as an exporter, Qatar alone profited from the gas field.

Gas flames burning at the South Pars gas field (Bildergalerie) Erdgas
Qatar benefited from sanctions limiting Iranian access to the South Pars gas fieldImage: Irna

Both states have different ideas about gas transport: Qatar wants a pipeline running through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria into Turkey, where the gas could be delivered to Europe. Iran however, has plans for a pipeline from Iran through Iraq and Syria leading to the Mediterranean Sea. Five years ago, Iran had such an agreement with Syrian leader Assad, but the war in Syria put an end to that billion-dollar project.

Further involvement by Iran in the current Qatar crisis could prove to be counterproductive - which is why the leadership in Doha would rather go without support from Tehran.

"Qatar will not turn to Iran in this crisis," said political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam of the University of Tehran. "They do not want to further provoke Saudi Arabia. Qatar is trying to manage this crisis with the help of Turkeyand Pakistan."

The Iranian leadership will likely also gladly take a back seat for domestic reasons; otherwise, powerful conservative circles in Iran - such as the Revolutionary Guard - who would like to go head to head with Saudi Arabia could receive fresh support.