Qatar signals strategic shifts as Iranian diplomacy sways EU

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Qatar's Foreign Minister, Chalid al-Atija (L) holds a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on February 26, 2014 in Tehran. (Photo: AFP-Atta Kenare)

By: Sami Kleib

Published Monday, March 10, 2014

When Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders visited Iran on February 22, 2014, the Iranians blatantly told him that the only solution in Syria would be to form a broad-based national unity government comprising of representatives of both the regime and the opposition, but under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.

The European official also heard harsh words from the Iranians about the role that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been playing in sponsoring terrorism. Iranian officials said that two Gulf countries, encouraged by the international community, were destabilizing the region and thwarting all efforts for peace in Syria.

The Iranians also said that funding terrorist groups would backfire on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and presented information, lists, and documents of their support for terrorists, mentioning that a brother of Prince Bandar bin Sultan was involved in funding them.

On February 26, only four days after the Belgian minister’s visit, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled bin Mohammed al-Attiyah arrived in Tehran. The minister, who has Syrian relatives, had started out his career as a fighter pilot, before he went into politics, business, and law. Because of his background, he probably understood that going to Tehran was not only mandatory now, but urgent.

How couldn't he have realized that when Doha has been receiving reports for some time that Saudi Arabia was planning to undermine the Qatari role and eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood's remaining bastions?

Tehran did not sever its relations with Qatar throughout the Syrian crisis; Iran advised and warned Qatar repeatedly when weapons and militants began to cross all red lines, but Qatar did not budge: “Assad has to be toppled by force.”

Qatar’s ambitions are justifiable, but its role was delicately drawn on its behalf. Riyadh allowed Doha’s ambitions to run their course. The kingdom encouraged, supported, and suggested that it was right behind Qatar. But as soon as the Qatari role in France suffered a blow due to its funding of terrorism in Mali, Saudi Arabia moved in to take its place. As soon as Qatar’s role in Egypt suffered a setback after the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime there was toppled, Saudi Arabia moved in to shower Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with money and support.

Doha sent officials to Damascus and Tehran, but its overtures were not well-received. What is required of Qatar is much more than a few publicized visits.

Two more blows came from Saudi Arabia. First, the ambassadors of Saudi, the UAE, and Bahrain were recalled from Doha. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood was designated by the Saudis as a terrorist organization. The media outlets funded by the two countries then proceeded to take part in the worst dispute in the history of their relations.

Qatar’s strategic shift

Iran is waiting, and so is Assad. The first is famous for its diplomacy and patience. The second brings in a military option that has started to turn the tide of the ongoing war.

The Qatari foreign minister went to Iran to offer a comprehensive deal that is currently under consideration. The Qatari position on Assad remains rigid, but everything is now up for discussion.

Qatar’s financial and moral contribution in securing the release of the nuns kidnapped in Syria is significant. The same can be said about other similar developments, even if the details of which have not been fully publicized, including Qatar’s recent move to curtail its support for armed groups. Those details will come to light in the near future.

Iran on the diplomatic track, Assad on the battlefield

On Sunday, Europe's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, heard from Tehran the same things her Belgian counterpart was told during his visit: the fight against terrorism is a priority, there must be a political solution in Syria based on the premises mentioned earlier, and there must be good faith on the nuclear issue. Everything else can be discussed.

Ashton’s response was more than encouraging to Iran as she said she was carrying a message of goodwill from 28 European countries. Ashton affirmed that by overcoming this stage with Iran will allow them to address more strategic issues down the road.

Tehran is aware of Europe’s need for making compromises. In Iran’s line of thinking, this is acceptable, so let it be the starting point and the bargaining chip that it can use with the Obama administration.

Iran’s warm reception of Ashton, and other European officials, is important and deliberate. It was followed by an equally warm reception that the U.S. extended to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier who is pathologically obsessed with Iran.

Yabrud: By force or by negotiations

The P5+1 negotiations are progressing. The Syrian army, in parallel, is making progress on the ground. Yabroud has all but fallen, whether through negotiations or by force. The decision to retake it was made a while ago, yet without haste. Other strategic regions might fall to the regime as well. Assad does not want July’s presidential elections to take place without first being in control of major cities – including Aleppo.

Washington and Tehran have been trading accusations during the negotiations, but this is to be expected. Obama needs this to silence the Israeli lobby in Congress and reassure Israel. Tehran needs it to ease the hard-liners’ attacks on the negotiators. The decision regarding the “gladiator’s flexibility” made by the Supreme Leader is irreversible, unless it proves to be detrimental to Iranian interests. So far, Tehran has gained much more than it expected in 2005.

The European officials who visited Iran heard the following: “We have the will to reach a final agreement. Iran’s sovereignty and rights as a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) must be respected when it comes to nuclear enrichment. We are not negotiating from a position of weakness. The sanctions did not kill Iran, but only made it more self-reliant.”

The Europeans told the Obama administration: “Ease your threats if you want to negotiate. Do not embarrass the negotiators.” At the same time, Iranian officials told them unequivocally: “The bomb does not benefit us. It runs against our faith. It even poses a threat to us.”

Iran is testing the West and vice versa. This is what is at heart of the coming shifts in the region. If the negotiations succeed, many things will change.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is worried and justifiably so. The issue has to do with its future role on the international arena. Iran is now a cornerstone in the war on terror. Therefore, it was necessary for Saudi Arabia to make a public volte-face shortly before Obama arrives in Riyadh this month by putting several organizations it once funded on its terrorism list.

The Iranian-European negotiations also include Gaza and the future of Palestine. Western powers realize that Tehran is not negotiating over the principle of resistance and settlements, and the Europeans have begun sounding the alarm over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Ashton spoke about the dangers of the Israeli blockade and the continued closure of the crossings on the Egyptian border. She said that Gaza must be taken into consideration during Palestinian-Israeli talks. The Europeans are preparing to offer what they call an “unprecedented package” for both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. This presupposes an agreement between them.

Do all these things allow Iran and its allies to be optimistic? Not quite.

What if Western negotiators ask Iran to take additional measures not stipulated in the NPT? The “gladiator’s flexibility” will vanish, or turn into a showdown.

What if nuclear inspections end up allowing NATO to spy on Iran’s conventional weapons? This is a possibility.

What will Iran do with the law it passed in 2005, requiring the construction of 20 nuclear reactors for civilian purposes? These will all need uranium enrichment.

What if Saudi Arabia and Western countries decide to transfer more harmful weapons to Syria in an effort to overturn the balance of power and try to take Damascus once again? And what if Israel ventures to undertake military action for the same purpose?

All of these questions are on the table. Yet the European Union is looking for a way out of such predicaments. For instance, European mediators proposed the idea of forming an international group to supply Iran with the nuclear material it needs. They believe that this would meet Iran’s needs while encouraging it to abandon uranium enrichment. Iran has yet to approve and hasn’t suspended production of heavy water in the reactor in Arak. Western powers fear this could help Iran produce plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

The tug of war continues.

Iran to Geneva II

The Belgian minister, and then Ashton, proposed to integrate Iran again into the Geneva 2 talks. Tehran had moved negotiations from Geneva to Vienna, to protest the Western position on Iran in Geneva.

Iranian Assistant Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdul-Lahian proposed to a European foreign minister to mediate with Syria over humanitarian issues, and to create a joint Iranian-European-Syrian follow-up committee. The Iranians said that they were extending assistance to Syrian refugees, especially in Jordan and Lebanon. The Iranians also spoke about their role and Hezbollah’s in brokering reconciliations in Syria. There were also discussions over possible cooperation between the Syrian Red Crescent and the European Red Cross.

These strategic developments involving Iran and Europe coincided with an increasing Iranian-Turkish rapprochement. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in need of Tehran, amid his feud with former ally and present enemy, preacher Fethullah Gulen. There were also talks with Russia recently to safeguard the rights of the Tatar minority in Ukraine. Qatari-Turkish-Iranian meetings, even ones involving Russia too, are no longer far-fetched. So how will this be translated on the ground in Syria?

Things are clearer than before. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will hold further meetings with Ashton until July. By then, it would be time for Syrian presidential elections.

Things in Ukraine will be clearer too by then: Either they will deteriorate further inviting more firmness by Vladimir Putin, or there will be de-escalation, bringing about better conditions for broader negotiations. The Europeans told Tehran that they were not enthusiastic about escalation with Putin and were inclined to seek settlements.

Also, the military situation in Syria would have become clearer by then. Everything therefore indicates that the coming months will be crucial, critical, but also full of promising possibilities.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


From dominican republic, Thanx you so much for this great article, that i found very profound and educative about important aspects of int. politics. Its a privileged to read this kind of things and thats why i love so much this newspaper,..

In another note, its just fascinating to see the way Iran have managed the sanctions and the recent crisis: developing more, improving, putting itself in a position of respect and putting its enemies in a position of weakness... what versatile and capable country...

im sure that in the top ten of the finest politicians, strategist and diplomats, Iran has a couple there...

uh, what a strange thing to write. Iran has been completely economically devastated by the sanctions and their leaders have done next to nothing to help its ordinary citizens. Their monies and energy go towards their proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and especially Syria, while their people wallow in absolute misery.
The only reason that the West is lifting partial sanctions is that Iran has fallen so low, they are willing to accept Western demands. They tried to spin it as a victory, but like many in history, their attempt to turn a real defeat into a mythical victory are hollow.
Mira, amigo. Yo no se que tipo de media uds tienen en santo domingo, pero no estas leyendo muy bien.

I suggest to stop reading saudi and western media. Iranian have survived these sactions over 30 years and will continue to beat it with the help of it's allies.
The Iranians reached thier goal of full enrichment now without any help.they can now negotiate from point of strength not weakness. As you see all the neuclear facilities are still working, and will work in the future.

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