This Opinion first appeared in the Majalla on March 22, 2012

Iran-Qatar relations face unprecedented uncertainty. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cancelled a planned trip to Doha in November 2011, and anti-Qatari Iranian rhetoric is at an all-time high. From Tehran’s perspective, Qatar has dangerously raised the stakes by spearheading Arab efforts to remove the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. Still, while Iran strongly resents Qatar’s so-called adventurism in Syria, Tehran’s hands are somewhat tied as it ponders a possible alternative approach towards Doha. The simple fact is that Iran badly wants to maintain whatever entente it still has among Arab countries in an era of Arab-Iranian tension—and the undeniable rise in tensions between Iran and Qatar have to be viewed in this context.

Once Decent Friends

Iranian commentators routinely describe Qatar as Iran’s second best friend among the Arab States of the Gulf. Only Oman is said to have been a more dependable friend to the Islamic Republic in the last three decades. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, Tehran-Doha relations have noticeably avoided the periodic wild swings that have characterized Iran’s bilateral ties with the other Gulf Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. A key Qatari decision made in the early days of the life of the Islamic Republic, which endeared it to Tehran, was its choice not to openly side with Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)—at a time when the likes of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia helped fund Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. Qatar’s stance was at best one of neutrality but it was good enough for Iran and it is still fondly remembered.

Tiny Qatar, with the smallest indigenous population among the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, has more recently taken a number of steps to endear itself to the giant neighbor to its north. Perhaps most notably, Qatar stood out as the sole dissenting voice when the UN Security Council passed resolution 1696 in July 2006, which demanded Iran halt its nuclear enrichment activities and imposed sanctions on the country. That was the first UN Security Council vote on Iran’s nuclear program, and there have since been three more censoring Iran.

At the time the Qatari delegate to the Security Council meeting, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, urged “affording diplomacy enough time to guarantee the achievement of a peaceful solution” to the Iranian nuclear controversy. The 2006 Qatari decision is still cited by Iranian foreign policy analysts as a memorable act of Qatari solidarity with Iran. But what is arguably far more telling is Qatar’s position on Iran’s nuclear program since that vote in 2006.

As the Western-led international momentum against Iran built up, Doha very swiftly changed its diplomatic course and put itself in the majority rank and, in December 2006 and March 2007, voted in support of UN resolutions 1737 and 1747 that tightened sanctions on Iran. It was unfortunate that during Qatar’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the Gulf country had to cast its vote on a critical issue involving a neighbor it earnestly wants to appease on three separate occasions. When put on the spot Doha showed that its July 2006 vote in support of Iran was a one-off and that Qatar will not veer away from international consensus on big-ticket policy issues.

The same kind of experimental, if not wavering, stance has been evident in Qatar’s position toward Iran on a regional level. For example, while holding the rotating presidency of the GCC in 2007, Qatar famously invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend the block’s annual summit. The significance of the invitation went well beyond symbolism, as it took place at the height of Arab-Iranian tensions amid a lively regional rivalry intensified by the rise of a new Iranian-backed Shia political elite in Iraq. Plenty of reporting and speculation in the Arab media at the time suggested that Doha had acted unilaterally in inviting Ahmadinejad and had done so at the expense of fostering a united GCC front against Tehran.

But as with its earlier 2006 UN vote in support for Iran, Qatar proved to be in no mood to experiment and accommodate Iran when the gravest internal GCC crisis surfaced and Doha once again had to make a fundamental choice. In March of 2011, Saudi and other GCC security forces arrived in Bahrain on the invitation of the Bahraini government as part of efforts to tackle anti-government protests in that country. Qatar did not hesitate to support the GCC military intervention in Bahrain, despite the loud Iranian condemnations and its charges that the predominantly Shia Bahraini protesters faced discrimination at the hands of GCC governments. Doha had once again clearly demonstrated the limits to its policy of accommodation toward Tehran and that Qatar was, despite its rivalries with other GCC members, firmly anchored in the Gulf regional bloc.

The Rival

For the regime in Tehran, the GCC military intervention in Bahrain was a bitter moment. The upheaval in the Arab World was anxiously viewed in Tehran as an opportunity for geopolitical gains. Nowhere would a regime change have pleased the Islamic Republic more than in Bahrain, where many Shia protesters are—by Tehran’s account—said to be ready to accept Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as their savior. In the early days of the Bahraini protests Iranian press reported that some Bahraini dissidents had made a direct appeal to Khamenei in a public letter. Hassan Mushaima, leader of Bahrain’s Haq Movement, went as far as touting the idea of an Iranian military intervention in support of the country’s Shia population.

Thus far Bahrain has not fallen to an Iranian fifth-column, but Tehran’s massive media campaign against the Al-Khalifa ruling family in Manama continues unabated. Among the other GCC states, Saudi Arabia faces the vast brunt of Iran’s fury. Scanning the Iranian regime’s propaganda for the last year shows that for the most part, Qatar was ignored as Tehran assailed the GCC’s intervention in Bahrain.

But Tehran’s concession to Qatar is not infinite. Tehran watched as Qatar joined forces with NATO in toppling the Muammar Qadhafi regime in Libya. Iran was plainly unsettled by this new Western-Arab model for political-military intervention—in which Qatar played a prominent and enthusiastic role—but its criticism of Doha remained largely subtle. The simple reason for Iran holding back at that moment was Libya’s relative irrelevance to Tehran. Qadhafi’s rapprochement with the West since 2003 had created great distance between Tehran and Tripoli, and Iran had little to lose with Qadhafi’s departure.

Libya, however, stood in contrast to another Arab country that found itself in turmoil in 2011: namely Syria. Syria has for over three decades been the bedrock of Iranian power projection into the Arab World. Iran has a clear-cut interest in seeing the regime of Bashar Al-Assad stay in power, and when Qatar opted to emulate the Libyan regime-change scenario in Syria, Iran became unquestionably unnerved. The response was swift and unmistakable. The Qatari Al-Thani ruling family found themselves depicted in Iranian information campaigns in the exact same crude terms as the Al-Sauds and the Al-Khalifa’s. Qatar’s rulers were said to be out of touch, illegitimate and peddlers for Western interests in the region. All of a sudden, Iranian state-controlled media became fixated with lambasting social freedoms in Qatar—such as the availability of alcohol in expat and tourist establishments—and the Al-Thani’s were said to be “abandoning Islamic norms and values.” Once decent friends, Tehran was now aiming at the Qatari jugular.

The most damning Iranian charge against Doha is that Qatar is in cahoots with the West to politically transform the Middle East by installing pro-Western regimes in Arab countries that have faced turmoil. This accusation is being repeated publicly and from the highest levels of power. In a greatly publicized interview with Fars News, General Yahya Safavi—the former chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and presently the top military advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei—spoke of the United States having tasked Qatar (together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to facilitate anti-Iran forces to come to power in places such as Syria. Esmail Kosari, the Vice-Chairman of the Iranian parliament’s commission on National Security and Foreign Policy, warned that Qatar’s “interference in the internal affairs of other countries will not remain unanswered.” This was in response to Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani’s suggestion that Syrian protesters should be given arms to fight the Al-Assad regime.

In fact, as the Syrian crisis continues, the Iranian state has had to go back in time in order to give credence to its theories about Qatari motivations. In one instance, the website Iranian Diplomacy reported in late 2011 that as early as February 2006 the US and Qatar were planning the political remodeling of the Middle East. The outlet quoted Ali Jannati, Iran’s former ambassador to Kuwait, who suggested that at the time he had attended the “Futures Forum” conference held in Doha it was clear that the US and Qatar were scheming to bring about disruptions in the Arab World.

This attempt to shape regional public perceptions about Qatar has an inevitable byproduct, as it produces a catch-22 moment for Iran’s rulers. Throughout the recent unrest in the Arab World, Iranian leaders have argued that Iran’s 1979 revolution is the model that the Arab masses have sought to emulate by rebelling against their leaders. This argument for Iranian-inspired popular uprising comically contradicts the notion that Qatar is one of the principal regional instigators who receive its cues from Washington, but this inept contradiction continues to be part of the narrative told by Tehran.

Some of the most recent Iranian charges against Doha have included accusations that Qatar—together with the other GCC members—has given Israel permission to use the airspace of their countries in an eventual attack against Iran. This represents another drastic turn in relations since as recently as February 2010, when Iran and Qatar signed a defense agreement, or even December 2010, when an IRGC naval fleet docked at Doha’s port as part of a friendly tour.

These days Qatar is instead said to be engaged in an overt effort to recruit Iranian energy experts, using offers of high salaries to give Qatar an edge as the two countries race to exploit the reserves of the world’s largest gas field that they jointly own. Despite the fact that Iran has always lagged behind Qatar in the exploitation of the South Pars/North Field gas field—as it does not have access to Western technology and finances—it is only very recently that Tehran has begun to emphasize the issue.

Iran’s Oil Minister Rostam Qassemi has ordered contractors working on the Iranian side of the field to “work around the clock” to catch up with the Qataris. At times, in statements that evoke memories of the Iraqi justification of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iranian officials speak of Qatari pilfering in the Gulf. Iranian parliamentarian Ahmad Mahdavi told his colleagues that Qatar is taking three times as much gas out of the shared field than Iran. No one in Tehran is calling for the shared gas field to become a pretext for a military conflict with Qatar, but the issue is undoubtedly a lever that Iran knows it can resort to as it looks to shape Qatari calculations about its regional goals.

The Mediator?

Iranian-Qatari relations have largely been about safeguarding the lowest common denominators that brought the two countries together in the first place. A key factor has been Qatari-Saudi rivalry over the years, and Iran’s deliberate strategy to fuel this intra-GCC division in order to weaken the collective strength of the bloc. Iran did not create this Qatari-Saudi split, but has sought to exploit it to the maximum extent. At the moment, it appears this line of thinking is still prevailing in Tehran despite the recent ups and downs in Doha-Tehran relations.

This strategic objective—to keep ties cordial with Qatar and keep Doha in an intense rivalry with Riyadh—is seemingly such an overriding policy for Tehran that it has led to it downplay another hard fact about Qatar: that the country also happens to be a close ally of the US and home to one of the largest American overseas military deployments, the Al-Udeid Air Base.

Meanwhile, some official Iranian voices have gone as far as mentioning Qatar adopt a quite a different role, that of a mediator between the Islamic Republic and Iran’s adversaries such as the US and Saudi Arabia.  Amir Mousavi, a former top defense official in Iran told Iranian Diplomacy that as “Qatar has very good relations with the US and Israel” it can “play a very important role in maintaining security and tranquility in the region” by acting as a “mediator to carry West’s messages for Iran and the vice versa.”

Mousavi’s call is not unique. Qatar’s mediation efforts between Iran and Saudi Arabia are also noted as useful by many other commentators in Tehran, particularly at tense moments such as the immediate aftermath of the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. At the moment, however, the idea of Qatar as Iran’s trusted go-between is on very shaky ground and one has to wonder if the ongoing Arab revolutions that began in 2011 can allow former Iran-Qatar relations to continue.

On the issue of the Syrian uprising, the most pressing and consequential question facing governments in the region, Tehran and Doha are the respective cheerleaders of pro and anti-Assad forces. And there are other matters of disagreement, such as Qatari attempts to move Hamas out of the Iranian orbit and Doha’s Afghan mediation efforts, which might lead the Taliban (Iran’s foe) to join the political process at the expense of the Tehran-backed factions.

In their own ways, both Iran and Qatar are regional misfits. They stand out as regional actors due to Iran’s ideological rigidness and Qatar’s knack of latching on to opportunities such as those emerging from the Libyan mayhem.  It is also clearly a relationship of two unequals. There are urban districts in the city of Tehran (population 9 million) with a greater number of people than the entire indigenous Qatari population of some 200,000. While they have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship involving a host of regional issues, it is patently clear that the ongoing Arab revolutions have brought a hitherto stable Iran-Qatari understanding to the brink.