Demystifying Qatar-Iran connection in GCC crisis
Crisis, if persists, will only increase Iran's influence, disrupt U.S. efforts against it, terrorism, spreading radicalism
By Dr. Ali Hussein Bakeer
- The writer is an international relations analyst and political adviser.
One of the charges used as a pretext to justify actions against Qatar in the recent pre-planned Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis -- in addition to severing diplomatic relations, executing a blockade, along with media and political campaigns as well as cyber attacks -- is the so-called close relationship between Doha and Tehran.
The current crisis was simply made out of nothing, and since there was no occasion to launch this conflict in the first place, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain had to go way back in time, to six, 10, 15 and even 20 years ago, to dig up evidences for their allegations that actually have nothing to do with the current Qatari Emir and his government or with the current dynamics in the Middle East anyway.
In fact, seven months ago, King Salman paid a historic visit to Doha. Maybe for the first time ever for the Qataris, the Saudi king danced in the presence of his host, a sign that the relationship with Doha was extraordinarily good.
Lately, Qatari officials have attended three high-level meetings with their Saudi counterparts and there was not a single indication that there was a problem or that the Saudis would complain about any of the issues they are claiming right now, including the Iranian one.
Nothing was raised against Qatar at GCC meetings, nothing in the Arab league and certainly nothing via bilateral channels. So how did this claim originate out of the blue to justify actions against Qatar and why?
Once upon a time, the relationship between Doha and Tehran was very good, the peak being the period between 2006 and 2008. But this was a long time ago, and from Doha’s perspective, it had its own circumstances and reasons then.
At that time, the so-called 'moderate axis' was incompetent, lacking leadership and resolve, especially when it came to representing the interests of the people and supporting the Palestinians' right to defend themselves against occupation and aggression, a fact fully utilized by Iran to manipulate the region and gain the overwhelming support of the Arab public.
No wonder that a 2008 poll conducted by Zogby Research Services and the University of Maryland found that the three most popular leaders in the Arab world at the time were Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Starting from 2009, the dynamics in the Middle East signaled a radical change, and Turkey was a rising star in the region. The Arab public started to shift from supporting Tehran to supporting Ankara and so did Qatar. To them, Turkey seemed a better alternative to Iran and its sectarian 'resistance axis'.
Since that time, Qatar's relationship with Iran has been no better than the relations between many GCC countries and Tehran. In fact, the Arab revolutions put Qatar and Iran at stark odds in the region. As a result, Doha moved further towards Turkey and the ground was set for better strategic relations between the two countries.
When we talk about the GCC, we first notice that Oman, for example, had and still has extensive relations with Iran. In 2009, Muscat provided a back channel for communication between Iran and the United States before playing a secret intermediary role.
In 2013, Oman played a crucial role in facilitating and hosting secret talks between Tehran and Washington. The talks ultimately led to the nuclear accord known as JCPOA between the two countries, and subsequently to the removal of the sanctions on Iran.
At all these major turning points, Oman, a member of the GCC, kept Saudi Arabia in the dark. The accord practically legitimatized the nuclear program, allowed Tehran to continue developing and testing ballistic missile capabilities, and gave the mullah regime the upper hand in the region.
In 2016, the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was stormed and set on fire. When Riyadh decided to pull its ambassador from Tehran, Doha showed support for Riyadh’s decision by recalling its ambassador while Muscat did not take any measures besides a verbal condemnation.
As for diplomatic relations with Iran, Kuwait has far more stable relations with Tehran than Doha does. 2014, for example, witnessed a historic Kuwaiti visit to Tehran; the emir himself visited Iran and met with the Supreme Leader.
In fact, Kuwait contacted Tehran last January to initiate a strategic dialogue between Iran and the GCC as a whole. After being reelected as Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani visited Oman and Kuwait last February.
And regarding the economic ties with Tehran, the UAE comes out way ahead of others. The UAE has very extensive economic ties with Iran. The country's ports have been playing an increasingly significant role in boosting trade with Iran in recent years, including illicit trade.
The UAE is Iran's main trade partner, accounting for 23.6 percent of its trade. According to IRNA, Iran’s official news agency, trade with Dubai alone accounts for 90 percent of the Arab country's trade with Iran.
In 2011, the volume of trade between Iran and the UAE stood at $23 billion before witnessing a drop to $15 billion in 2013 because of the sanctions on Iran, but the UAE still accounted for 96.7 percent of the GCC exports to Iran in that year.
There are almost half a million Iranians living in the UAE, mainly in Dubai. Most have relatives in Iran, and some of them keep active relations with the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in particular.
In the last two decades, Dubai has been / is still used by the IRGC as a back door for its financial, business, money laundering and intelligence activities, and military purchases.
The UAE contributed greatly to the efforts to help the Iranian regime avoid the international sanctions and boost the illicit trade of the IRGC. The strength and depth of the Iran-UAE bilateral relations have always complicated the enforcement of the U.S. and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Tehran.
In 2011, several Dubai-based companies violated the U.S. Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Iranian Transactions Regulations, because they evolved into illegal arms deals to purchase and route U.S. military equipment including components for attack helicopters and fighters.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, Executive Director of Center on Sanctions & Illicit Finance, and former adviser to the Obama and Bush administrations on Iran's sanctioned policy, said in 2012: "For years Dubai was a huge headache for the administration because it was unwilling to enforce sanctions," adding "That’s changed". But did it?
Dubai-based companies were used by the Iranian government and the IRGC to overcome any financial difficulties and to secure the critical needs of the nuclear program, and that is why they frequently appear on U.S Treasury's black lists, and they still are at this very moment.
In one of the cases in 2014, for example, the U.S. Treasury stated that "Hezbollah has used the Stars Group Holding network to covertly purchase sophisticated electronics and other technology from suppliers across the world.
"Items obtained by Hezbollah using the Stars Group Holding network have directly supported the group’s military capabilities, including the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have been used most recently for its activities in Syria and to conduct surveillance operations in Israel."
The Stars Group Holding network maintains subsidiaries in Dubai and was also sanctioned along with many UAE-based subsidiaries used by Hezbollah to acquire a range of engines, communications, electronics, and navigation equipment to use in UAVs mainly.
In the same year, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) introduced Foreign Sanctions Evaders List with respect to Iran and Syria, and the list included many entities in the UAE, both from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
In 2015, Reuters uncovered an exclusive report detailing how the UAE, through money changers and front companies in Dubai, helped smuggle $1 billion in cash into Iran to avoid Western sanctions.
When we look deeply into how much the UAE really helped the Iranian regime despite the hawkish rhetoric we sometimes hear from its officials, it will not be hard to judge that the current claim of Qatar being too close to Tehran is mere nonsense and a black propaganda.
A source with deep knowledge of the current contacts on the Gulf crisis told me, quoting a senior official in the U.S. State Department who is aware of the latest U.S. communications with Saudi Arabia that they "listened to their accusations in this regard and frankly they are very old and goes way back in time, things that already passed".
"We didn't notice any surprise changes in the nature of the relations between Qatar and Iran in recent years. Even when it comes to their newer accusations in this regard, they provided no proofs to us and we don’t have any confirmations from our side on it."
Furthermore, it is ironic that Qatar's airlines are now being prevented from flying over the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain while the UAE still has direct flights to and from Iran. Both Mahan Air, the Iranian airlines with ties to the IRGC, and the Syrian Air, Assad’s official airlines, still operate direct flights from Iran and Syria to the UAE.
Syrian Air was sanctioned in 2013 for acting on behalf of Iran (IRGC-QF), with the help of Hezbollah, to transport illicit cargo including weapons to support the Assad regime's military campaign against the Syrian people.
Mahan Air has been sanctioned by the U.S. many times since 2011 for "supporting terrorism and providing financial, material and technological support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard".
What is more shocking is that the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Mahan Air for violating international laws by transferring arms and reinforcements to Syria's Assad, Yemen's Houthi and Lebanon's Hezbollah! These regimes/militias are the strongest allies/clients of Iran in the whole Middle East.
So, when Saudi Arabia was battling these Iranian affiliates in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq to try to stop Tehran's expansion in the region, the UAE was actually facilitating / helping Iran support them! The outcome is a fiasco that Qatar had to be blamed for, knowing full well that Doha supported Saudi Arabia in all these regions!
For example, although the UAE is a member of the Friends of Syria group and the Likeminded Group, the UAE's position at the political meetings behind closed doors was always closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
While Qatar was vocal at these meetings against terrorist groups and the IRGC-affiliated groups in Syria, the UAE rarely focused on Iran or its around 60 thousand sectarian militia members there, and instead targeted groups in the anti-Assad and anti-Iran camp.
Egypt's Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who is supported by the UAE, took a similar stance and that is why whenever possible Iran has always stressed the need for Egypt to attend a number of meetings on Syria -- like the Lausanne ministerial meeting -- in order to counter Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.
In 2014, many individuals and companies with offices in the UAE, especially in oil sector, actively supported Assad and his air force by providing oil and fuel. The U.S. Treasury in 2016 sanctioned the networks providing support to Assad’s regime, aiding his weapons of mass destruction program.
Companies and individuals in the UAE such as Dubai-based Yola Star and its CEO Salah Habib acted as an agent for the Syrian Air Force, the Syrian Air Force Intelligence, the Army Supply Bureau as well as other designated Syrian government entities, including the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which focuses on developing Assad regime’s biological and chemical weapons.
Ahmad Al-Jarba, former head of the Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition forces (ETILAF), is believed to be one of the UAE’s key men in Syria.
Just less than six months ago, Erem News, a UAE news outlet, interviewed Al-Jarba and when asked whether he would accept the staying of Assad (Iran’s ally) in power in Syria or not, he clearly said: "There would be no problem if this would be for the sake of the country."
Here Jarba is probably expressing the hidden agenda of his supporters. The UAE is pretty much notorious not only for supporting the counterrevolutions in many Arab countries, but also for sheltering, hosting and supporting secular Arab dictators, mass murderers, corrupt regime members and their families from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Palestine.
Obviously, the Iranian issue is not the real issue in the current GCC crisis. However, accusing Qatar of being too close to Iran and its militias is just an effective way of diverting attention in order to appeal to the Arab public, and the Saudi public in particular, which harbors strong anti-Iranian sentiments due to the mullah regime's subversive policies and the activities of the Quds Force in the Arab region in recent years.
But since they do not have anything to support their claims, the only tool available to promote such false allegations against Qatar is to dig stories from a distant past.
Qatar may have made mistakes before or might be making a number of others now just like every other country in the Middle East or the world, but this in no way means that Saudi Arabia or the UAE are on the right track! The right way to overcome such problems is to increase cooperation, enhance collaboration and strengthen coordination.
In fact these countries claim that countering Iran, ending support for terrorism and achieving stability are what lie at the heart of this campaign against Qatar.
At best, this crisis, if it persists, will eventually lead to nothing but increasing the influence of Iran, disrupting the U.S. efforts against it and against terrorism, spreading radicalism and creating Sunni-Sunni conflicts in the whole region, pushing more countries and groups in the Middle East directly and forcibly towards Iran’s embrace.
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