This weekend Iran came out and fiercely condemned Bahrain’s intention to normalize relations with Israel. On Friday Bahrain announced a deal along similar lines to last month’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the United States. That makes two Gulf State Arab nations set to establish full relations with Israel. Yesterday Iran called the move shameful and ignominious. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said Bahrain’s normalization “will remain in the historical memory of the oppressed and downtrodden people of Palestine and the world’s free nations forever.” If that were not enough, the Iranian Republican Guards labeled the move a betrayal of the Palestinian people, and a “threat to security in West Asia and the Muslim world.”
Iran is not only outraged, but also significantly worried about the direction of events in the Persian Gulf region. Two neighboring nation-states are on the road to making peace with Israel. Right now, Iranian leaders are no doubt wondering what nation will be next, fervently hoping it will not be Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. It would appear, however, that negotiations between Israel and the Saudis are underway. It would not be unrealistic to see them normalize relations by the beginning of 2021. The Kuwaitis, also in discussions with Israel, could be ready to announce a deal next month. Qatar’s position at present is unknown, but the Trump administration is likely making inroads there.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration’s goal here is to place Iran in a box that it cannot escape from. US pressure has been increasing on a number of fronts since 2017 and the Iranian regime knows the walls are closing in. Now, with neighboring Arab states making peace with Israel, Iran’s position in Syria will become more precarious. That affects its position in Beirut, which at the moment is not as secure as it was twelve months ago.
Iran’s reaction to the UAE and Bahrain will not be limited to words. At some point in the coming weeks expect to see tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. Another tanker hijacking incident off the Emirates is probable, or a renewed Iranian threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz. It is no likely, however, that these or any similar moves will derail the prospect of US-backed peace breaking out in the Persian Gulf.
Less than twenty-four hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities to be an act of war, his Iranian counterpart warned the world that any US or Saudi military action against Iran will lead to an ‘all out war.’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on to explain that while Iran does not wish for war, it is prepared to defend itself should war come. His comments today have escalated the war of words presently underway between the Iranian regime and the Trump administration.
Zarif’s verbal barrage comes on the heels of not only Pompeo’s words, but also Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it believes Iran ‘unquestionably sponsored’ the attacks. Riyadh stopped short of openly blaming Iran, however. In yesterday’s statements, the Saudi government did explain its intention to gather more information on the attack. Specifically, determining the launch points of the cruise missiles. As I hinted at in a post the other day, this explanation could be little more than a screen to hide what is taking place behind the scenes. The US has incontrovertible proof that Iran is entirely responsible for the attack and the intelligence has been shared with the Saudi leadership and its military.
The other Gulf States appear to be aligning themselves with the United States as the crisis escalates. Today the United Arab Emirates announced it would be joining the US-led maritime coalition now being put together. Bahrain has previously said it too would be a part of the effort. Kuwait has raised the alert level of its military and security services as a precautionary measure. The Kuwaitis are also investigating the detection of unidentified UAVs over its territory earlier in the week, in an attempt to determine if there is a link to Iranian actions and future intentions.
As the Qatar crisis moves into a new phase with the Saudi deadline being extended by 48 hours, and the Qataris delivering a response to the ultimatum shortly after, it is becoming clear that the United States holds the key to resolving the crisis. All of the involved parties are US allies, and following his visit to the region in May, President Trump wields tremendous influence with the Gulf states. Mediation sponsored by the US would likely be favorable to both Qatar, and the Saudi-led coalition. Unfortunately, the United States is not be ready to assume the role at any point in the near future.
The Trump administration is divided on the Qatar situation right now. At the start of the crisis, President Trump unexpectedly voiced strong support for Saudi Arabia’s actions, and he has remained steadfast in his support since then. For most of June, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis worked tirelessly to defuse the crisis. Tillerson held meetings with senior officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other nations involved, urging them to keep the door to negotiations open. However, his efforts have been undermined by Trump’s vocal backing of the Saudis.
If the administration can unify under a somewhat more neutral position, the US is perfectly positioned to play a meaningful role in the crisis. Without a doubt, US interests are best served by a rapid end to the crisis on terms more or less agreeable to all sides. The longer the crisis drags on, it becomes more probable that outside forces will begin to play more dangerous, self-serving roles. Specifically, Iran, and Turkey come to mind. Neither Washington, or Riyadh want this. The difference is that the Saudis firmly believe they can choke Qatar into submission before either Iran or Turkey manage to gain influential political, and economic beachheads in Qatar.
A US backed effort to defuse the crisis through negotiations would go a long way in minimizing Turkish and Iranian influence on the Qataris. Unfortunately, the clock is not a friend of Washington right now, and the Trump administration does not appear to be anywhere close to presenting a united front on the crisis, and taking decisive action to alleviate the situation.
The economic and diplomatic blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and a select group of its allies is two and a half weeks old. Neither side has made much of an effort to alleviate the crisis. In fact, Doha and Riyadh seem to have used the time to dig their heels in even deeper. Attempts at mediation by Kuwait and other regional nations have resulted in nothing substantial. Vociferous Turkish support for Qatar, though self-serving, has served only to stoke the flames of anger and suspicion in Riyadh even more. The crisis has taken a back seat to other global matters and crises over time. The prime reason for this has been Saudi Arabia’s failure to present and explain its grievances with Qatar to the rest of the world.
As of today, however, that has changed. Today the Saudis delivered an ultimatum to Qatar, laying out in detail the terms Doha must agree to for the blockade to be lifted. The terms are heavy-handed, to say the least. The list of thirteen points include stipulations that Qatar shut down al-Jazeera, minimize its ties with Iran, remove Turkish troops from Qatari soil, and break off its relationship with groups that the Saudis and their anti-Qatari coalition consider to be terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has been given ten days to comply with the terms or else face undefined consequences.
Essentially, this is a list of demands, not so different from what a criminal gives to police when he finds himself barricaded with hostages. In that respect, this crisis has a few similarities with a hostage situation. The Saudis intentions here are as crucial as their actions. Riyadh could have made the terms so imposing in order to create room for negotiation and meet the Qataris somewhere in the middle. But the ultimatum could also be entirely straightforward and sincere. The Saudi terms do appear to mirror the laundry list of complaints that Riyadh, and its allies, have compiled against Qatar.
That being said, the demands are not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. Western nations are treading carefully through this diplomatic minefield, especially the United States. The US wants to see this crisis resolved amicably, as Washington understands that the longer it goes on, the greater the chance that Qatar will eventually align itself with Iran. At the same time, it wants to see the grievances between Qatar and its Gulf allies and neighbors resolved once and for all.
Kuwait’s attempt to mediate the regional crisis involving Qatar and some of its neighbors is bearing fruit. Today, Kuwait announced that Qatar is ready to sit down and listen to the grievances and claims of its fellow Gulf States, and Egypt. The crisis began when several Arab nations announced they are severing diplomatic ties with the tiny emirate over Qatar’s alleged support of select terrorist groups, some of which are backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia, the leader of the effort, closed its border with Qatar and sealed off air, sea, and land contact, essentially isolating the smaller nation. Since last Monday, Qatar has begun to feel the pinch of the imposed isolation. The Qatari stock market has fallen 8% on fears of food, medicine, and other goods shortages coming in the near future if the crisis continues. Qatari Airlines, the largest air carrier in the region has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia and other nations that have taken similar actions against it.
As last week went on, the rift appeared to deepen. Qatar remained defiant, refuting the Saudi claims and not making any moves which could be construed as admitting guilt. From outside the region, a number of nations urged caution and offered to serve as mediators to bring both sides to the table. It is best, however, that Kuwait’s offer is the one being acted upon. This dispute is largely ‘in-house’ and should be resolved by the Gulf states. Kuwait’s first attempt at mediation last week failed. However, with the crisis showing no signs of ending in the near future, Qatar is using Kuwait’s second attempt to gain some breathing room. The fact that it is willing to sit down and hold discussions is a step towards an eventual reconciling the broken relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and other nations.
The world has taken notice of the situation and concern is growing. The consensus is that a swift end to the situation is beneficial for all involved parties, especially before an outside nation attempts to use the crisis to its own benefit. Iran is the first nation that comes to mind. However, Turkey is another nation that has made alarming moves, especially its very vocal support of Qatar. If the second Kuwaiti mediation falls apart, do not be surprised if Turkish support becomes more substantial in the coming days.