Inside Qatar’s complicated relationship with Iran

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The Iran nuclear deal and overall improved ties with the Western world has caused many nations in the Middle East -- including Qatar -- to re-evaluate their relationships with other countries in the conflict-ridden region.

On July 14, 2015, the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed in Vienna and is an international agreement between Iran, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.), Germany and the European Union.

As part of the agreement, Iran reaffirmed that it would not seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons. The nations believe the agreement will stabilize the Middle East and “contribute to regional and international peace.”

Tension in the region has brewed for years, with many countries viewing Iran’s increased influence in the region as unsettling. Now, with the nuclear deal in place, Gulf countries such as Qatar have begun to explore various measures to decrease tension and improve relations with Iran.

David Weinberg, senior fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Gulf News Journal that the best analogy he has come across that he believes most accurately depicts the evolving relationship between Iran and Qatar came from a prominent Qatari who compared the relationship to that of Finland and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“The Western governments of NATO understood that Finland was particularly exposed to the Soviet,” Weinberg said. “And therefore, its (public stance) was more favorable to (a) Soviet alliance than (to) Western Europe.”

Weinberg said Qatar often makes favorable statements regarding Iran because they want to maintain peace.

“Basically, they want no problems with Iran because they can't afford to have problems with Iran," Weinberg said. "While I don't think every element of the relationship is (contentious), I do think that one needs to distinguish between public statements and public gesture as an engagement."

With relations beginning to improve in the region, reformists are encouraging Iran to warm up to the Gulf countries. On Oct. 18, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Council in Iran  told Shafaqna that mutual respect and shared interests would help to improve the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Days earlier, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia had any vested interest in harming the other and that all the Arab countries “are in the same boat, which if it sinks, everyone on board will drown.”

Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Attiyah said the Iranian nuclear deal makes the entire region safer, and emphasized at the UN General Assembly last September that the relations between Doha and Tehran “are evolving and growing steadily.”

Adding to the complexity of the Qatar-Iranian relationship is the North Dome/South Pars, the world’s largest natural gas field, which the two countries share. Weinberg said that the shared gas field in the Persian Gulf provides an additional incentive for Qatar to maintain good relations with Iran.

“I think that's sort of the core of why they feel they can't alienate Iran because basically, the core element of Qatar is national wealth, but also the sort of national stability, in a sense, is a resource shared with the Iranians and one that Iran (would deny) the Qatari if (it came to that),” Weinberg said.

Interestingly, Qatar benefits from U.N. sanctions placed on Iran because the sanctions give Qatar the coveted advantage of being able to host foreign companies investing in gas, while Iran cannot.

Over the years, Qatar and Iran have had several meetings to try to establish mutual agreement between the two countries. In 2010, Iranian military commanders attended meetings in Qatar to discuss security, military and economic issues, and a security agreement was signed.

When asked what his projection is of how the relationship between Qatar and Iran will develop over the next few years, Weinberg said it will be interesting to see how the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dynamics on trade with Iran will evolve.

"I think we will likely see continued pressure from the Saudis (and) probably in some ways the Emirates (for) a very deep trade relationship with Iran," Weinberg said. "But in this political context, it's going to be difficult for Iran to develop its trade relations with some other members of the GCC."

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