While nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran, which have taken longer than expected, have not yet reached a conclusion, some sources close to Tehran highlighted that one of the reasons for the attacks of the Houthis on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on January 17 may be related to the talks conducted in Vienna in a bid to try and put pressure on the West. Although Tehran’s official position on the matter is that the Houthis operate independently from itself without any influence over their activities, the facts paint a different picture. There is substantial evidence that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) were seriously involved in several Houthi attacks. It is now known that, despite the international arms embargo, information and military aid were sent from Iran to the Houthis. Iran’s support is behind the Houthis’ ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to the United Nations, the Houthis have acquired rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank guided missiles and more sophisticated cruise missile systems from Iran. Some of these weapons were manufactured in Iran.
With growing evidence that Iran is providing significant military support to the Houthis, many Gulf security officials have no doubt that Iran played an active role in assisting the group, including during the attacks against the UAE in January. Therefore, while the escalation of Houthi attacks has led to calls from Gulf Arab states to Washington to re-recognize the Houthis as a terrorist organization, the UAE has started negotiations with the United States to strengthen its defense capabilities. The UAE’s Permanent Envoy to the United Nations said security talks with Washington were ongoing but did not elaborate any further. The intensification of military activities by the Iran-backed Houthis means that tensions are likely to escalate, at least in the short term.
Even though Iran-backed Ansarullah, an important actor in the ongoing Yemeni War, sends clear messages to the UAE by explicitly targeting important Emirati facilities in the energy and trade sectors with drones and missiles for the first time, it is significant that the group’s attacks took place specifically in the middle of the nuclear talks in Vienna. In spite of the many reasons for the attacks, sources close to the Houthis say that they want to send a message expressing that, if the negotiations collapse, there will be consequences and that the “Axis of Resistance” will stand by Iran.
In the midst of these tensions in the Gulf and amid the critical stage reached in the negotiations on the revival of the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Qatari Foreign Minister announced that his country was trying to mediate between the United States and Iran. Visiting Tehran a few days before the Qatar Emir’s visit to Washington on January 31, 2022, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, in an interview with Al Jazeera, evaluated the meeting between Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and US President Joe Biden, while also noting that the nuclear deal was also discussed. Al-Thani also stated that Tehran and Washington are trying to bring their views closer. Last week’s talks took place amid reports that Iran is considering meeting with US negotiators directly, contrary to talks thus far which have been done through European mediators and may be willing to release at least some of the four US citizens of Iranian background imprisoned in Iran.
While Qatar supports both initiatives, it also is among the countries that have called on the US administration to lift sanctions in return for Iran’s return to its commitments under the 2015 deal. Although one of the main goals for Qatar’s diplomatic blockade by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in 2017 was to force it to break off its relations with Iran, Doha and Tehran have deepened their relations since the outbreak of the crisis. As Tehran’s solidarity with Doha increased, the siege consequently brought Doha closer to Tehran, reinforcing Qatar’s perceptions that the imminent threat to its security is not from Iran but from its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors. During this period, Iran became a lifeline rather than a threat for Doha. Even before the blockade, after the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Qatar maintained a mostly positive relationship with Tehran as they were two countries sharing the North Dome/South Pars, the world’s largest gas field. Ensuring the field security of this gas field, on which Doha is economically dependent, and ensuring unlimited access to the field necessitate cooperation between Qatar and Iran. Also, any military conflict involving Iran in the Gulf could destroy Qatar’s sensitive-critical infrastructure. Qatar should also maintain positive relations with Iran to prevent Tehran from targeting Doha, while hosting the largest US military presence in the Middle East, the Al-Udeid airbase, where 10,000 US troops are stationed.
While the US and Iran have recently been sending messages on the idea that they can meet directly with each other, it is understood that they see Qatar as an appropriate candidate for the mediation role. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy praised Doha’s efforts to revive the JCPOA and said he hopes Qatar can help bring all parties back to the deal. While Oman has previously acted as a mediator between the US and Iran with good faith and credibility in the past, Qatar appears to have been chosen for this purpose for several reasons. It can be said that Qatar, which has played an important role in Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Libya, peace talks in Afghanistan and negotiating gas transfers to Europe, has strengthened its mediator role in the US due to its connection with the conflicting power blocks in the Middle East. In other words, Qatar enjoys good relations with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel at the same time and has been able to skillfully use the latent interests between these blocs to increase its regional role. Another reason why Qatar’s role is attractive to the US is that it plays a mediating role in Afghan peace talks and in US-Taliban talks that led to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which subsequently led to Qatar assuming political and military plans in the country. During his meeting with Sheikh Tamim, Joe Biden recalled Qatar’s “central role” in safeguarding the strategic interests of the United States, Qatar’s cooperation with Washington “in resettling tens of thousands of Afghans, maintaining stability in Gaza, providing vital assistance to the Palestinians, and its importance as a valuable partner in the war with ISIS.
From Iran’s perspective, it can be said that Qatar sees its role in the region positively. At the same time, Iran is trying to open a new channel after Oman’s traditional mediator role dissipated due to the death of Sultan Qaboos and because of a former Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Muscat causing Iran to move away from Oman. On the other hand, Qatar is motivated to hold direct talks between Iran and the United States in order to speed up and facilitate an agreement in the Vienna talks. Qatar, which sees its security, stability and development in relations with the US, believed that the region would be stable as long as Iran and the US were at peace in the past decade. Accordingly, Qatar has always welcomed Iran’s security proposals in the Persian Gulf, including the Regional Dialogue Forum, the Hormuz Peace Initiative, and the non-aggression pact proposed by Tehran. In the current state of things, Qatar’s role seems to be evaluated increasingly by the US, especially in the context of its gradual exit strategy from the Middle East and the activation of détente negotiations between conflicting powers. In conclusion, regardless of whether Qatar currently has a specific and approved mediation role by Iran and the United States, or whether it carries a message to the parties that the revival of the nuclear deal is finalized, it must be said that Qatar has played a mediating role in developments.