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Qatar: Saudi Arabia is taking a chance – and Iran could be the ultimate winner

Destination: Tehran. EPA

Qatar: Saudi Arabia is taking a chance – and Iran could be the ultimate winner

Destination: Tehran. EPA

The Qatar crisis flared up when the official Qatar News Agency quoted Sheikh Tamim, the Emir of Qatar, as saying that “there is no wisdom in harbouring hostility towards Iran”. These words not only effectively supported Iran, but criticised the US and Saudi Arabia’s policies towards it. Qatari officials quickly announced that the news agency had been hacked, and the report was “fake news” – but it was too late.

For Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as its main rival and is taking every opportunity to isolate it, these words were intolerable. It promptly corralled its allies in the Middle East (notably the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) to collectively cut off their relationships with Qatar and impose a series of sanctions. These, Riyadh said, would be lifted if Qatar agreed to a list of 13 “non-negotiable” demands, including cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, shutting down the al-Jazeera news network, and ending “interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs”.

In doing so, Saudi Arabia took a gamble. Qatar has two options: accept Saudi Arabia as a “big brother” and comply with its diktats, as most of the Gulf states do, or continue with an ambitious and relatively independent foreign policy and further incur the Saudis’ wrath.

If Qatar chooses to comply with even some of Riyadh’s demands, the gamble will have paid off; Saudi Arabia could finish the crisis confident that Qatar will fall into line against Iran as most of the region does. But if Qatar opts for defiance with Iranian support, the sanctions and restrictions the Saudis have imposed will look like one big miscalculation – an attempt to discipline a small neighbour that instead drove it into the Iranian fold.

Iran’s immediate response to the Qatar crisis was inconspicuous. A foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, called for reconciliation between the both sides and highlighted that “in today’s interconnected world, inefficient use of sanctions is condemned, rejected and unacceptable”. Later, Iran dispatched five planes filled with food to Qatar as the sanctions began to kick in. In addition, once Saudi Arabia banned Qatari flights from its airspace, Tehran was quick to allow them into its skies.

Cheeringly for Iran, Qatari officials’ first response to Saudi Arabia’s moves signalled that at least for now, defiance is trumping compliance. If that changes and they give in to the pressure the Saudis are applying, Iran could end up more isolated than ever in the region.

Back in the game

For years, Iran was a dependable supporter of Hamas, the Palestinian militant Islamist group that governs Gaza. But then came the rebellion in Syria and the ensuing war, in which Hamas early on backed opponents of the Iran-supported government. Iran duly cut off the military aid it used to send the group – many of whose key leaders then moved to Qatar.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal speaks in Doha, May 2017. EPA/Mohammed Saber

But since the current crisis began, several of those top Hamas officials have left Qatar at the government’s request. That ends Qatar’s role in steering Hamas towards the Gulf states, and removes a key bone of contention with Iran, which has an opportunity to repair its ties with Hamas – and in turn would help Iran become a player in the Israel-Palestine conflict once again.

Overshadowing all this is the conflict in Syria, where Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all support different sides. Whereas Iran backs Bashar al-Assad’s government and Shia militant groups, Qatar and Saudi Arabia support factions of Sunni rebels – but not the same ones.

The mutual hostility between Syria’s Sunni rebels was evident even before the crisis, and with no resolution in sight, the divisions are still poisonous. So long as the opposition to Assad’s government is sharply divided, Iran has a chance to extend and enhance its power.

All in all, by trying to pressurise Qatar into backing away from Iran, Saudi Arabia has handed its great rival various opportunities that it’s been chasing for years. If Qatar resists the Saudis’ pressure, the Middle East will witness one of its greatest foreign policy backfires for years.