Why Qatar Wants to Facilitate a US-Iran Breakthrough
Updated: Mar 16
Bourse & Bazaar Foundation
February 17, 2021
On February 15, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the foreign minister of Qatar, travelled to Tehran in the latest instance of Doha's efforts to act as a facilitator for the resolution of international conflicts.
Al Thani delivered a letter from the Emir of Qatar to Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani. Beyond matters related to bilateral issues, the contents of the letter likely included Qatar’s offer to facilitate dialogue between Iran and the United States on issues related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This trip was not the first time Qatar has attempted to play a role in resolving the conflict between Tehran and Washington. Just over a year ago, a day after the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, the Qatari foreign minister made an unannounced trip to Tehran to deescalate tensions. Shortly afterward, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani's made his first official visit to Iran.
Qatar's diplomatic efforts surrounding the conflict between Iran and the United States cannot be characterized as mediation. After all, Qatar does not have direct involvement in the negotiations between Tehran and Washington, nor is it overseeing any meetings or presenting any initiatives. But the less significant role of facilitator is nonetheless important.
Until recently, Oman and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait took on the role of facilitators in the Middle East, be it in between Iran and the United States, or Iran and Saudi Arabia, or between Yemeni factions. Qatar is trying to take a further step in this regard and act as a facilitator for a wide range of international conflicts. The Qatari Foreign Ministry touts that the emirate “hosts negotiations between conflicting parties and contributes as a facilitator of dialogue between them." Examples of diplomatic achievements include "an important role in reaching Doha Peace Agreement in Darfur, releasing of Djiboutian prisoners of war in Eritrea, releasing hostages in Syria, [and] ending the presidential vacuum in Lebanon." Moreover, Qatar is involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through a humanitarian capacity, it is hosting the most recent intra-Afghan talks, and attempted to facilitate the resolution of the issue between Iran and South Korea over the oil tanker in the Persian Gulf just recently.
The focus on the US-Iran tensions reflects not just the significant security issues these tensions pose for the Persian Gulf region, but also the appreciation of Qatar’s leadership for Iranian assistance during the blockade imposed by fellow members of the GCC. The recent détente between Qatar and the other GCC states marked by the Al Ula Summit are unlikely to negatively impact the deeper relations built with Iran over the past years. This is despite the fact that curbing diplomatic and economic ties with Iran was one of the conditions set when the blockade was first imposed. Qatar did not comply with these demands.
In contrast, the blockade propelled Qatar's post-conflict regional approach to enhance its relations with Iran. While Qatar had recalled its ambassador from Tehran in solidarity with Saudi Arabia following the January 2016 incidents at Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran, Doha restored its diplomatic representation in Tehran by reinstating its ambassador soon after the blockade was imposed. Furthermore, to guarantee the food security of its population, to ensure an air-route for its leading international airline, and to secure regional diplomatic support, Qatar continued to deepen its relations with Iran.
Iran and Qatar share the largest gas reserves in the world—a unique feature in the bilateral relationship between the two countries that has provided a basis for constructive relations. Along with expressing a desire to bring Iran and the United States back to the negotiating table, Qatar has repeatedly called for an inclusive GCC-wide dialogue with Iran. Statements from Qatar's Emir, foreign minister, and defence minister have described Iran as "our neighbor" and "part of [the region’s] fabric" and noted that Iran’s stability is "[Qatar’s] stability."
In an interview a day before Joe Biden's inauguration, Foreign Minister Al Thani stated that he hopes that Iran and the United States "will reach a solution with what has happened with the JCPOA" and that Qatar will welcome the invitation if it is asked by the stakeholders to play a role. Additionally, according to Al Thani, resolving the issues around the JCPOA "will help relations between the GCC and Iran" as everything is "interconnected at the end of the day." He has further argued that "the time should come when the GCC will sit on the table with Iran and reach a common understanding between the countries that we have to live with each other, we cannot change geography."
The Emir of Qatar was among the first world leaders to welcome the JCPOA, calling it "a positive and important step" in his address during the 2015 United Nations General Assembly, not long after the deal was struck. Since then, Doha has been vocally supportive of the agreement—it even tried to persuade the Trump Administration to stick with the deal.
The diplomatic outreach has picked-up since the election of Joe Biden. The Qatari foreign minister has been in contact with the U.S. National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, and the Special Representative for Iran, Robert Malley. It can be expected that he will speak to Secretary Anthony Blinken in the coming days as well. Iran is likely to be high on the agenda for this call.
In the end, the European parties to the nuclear deal—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—are best positioned to formally mediate between the US and Iran in any period before direct talks. However, Qatar’s diplomacy may help facilitate this subsequent stage of mediation, in a role similar to that played by Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2013.
While in Tehran, Al Thani made clear his hopes for renewed diplomacy, stating, "We hope that with the return of the US to the nuclear deal as soon as possible, challenges and sanctions can be alleviated within the framework of the deal and Qatar will not spare any efforts to make that happen." Doha is certainly eager to notch another diplomatic success.