Small Wars Journal

What Fox News Hasn't Told You about Qatar and Iran

What Fox News Hasn't Told You about Qatar and Iran

Irina Tsukerman

A recent Fox News story provided a conclusion of an intelligence report, which explained that Qatar likely had advance knowledge of Iran attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May, but failed to share that information that could have prevented these attacks. If accurate this episode would not be the first time when Qatar is alleged to have had early warning of terrorist attacks but kept silent, advancing its own foreign policy agenda. Former Al Jazeera reporter Mohamed Fahmy had extensively discussed alleged contacts between Al Jazeera, a state-funded mouthpiece that closely reflects Qatar's foreign policy in its coverage, and that it has followed Iran's lead in using the media as a tool of foreign policy, masquerading as press. Qatar has openly supported the IRGC, Hezbullah, Hamas, and other Iran-funded terrorist organizations in its news coverage, as well as by giving platform to operatives and spokespeople from these groups on Al Jazeera.

Fahmy also pointed out that Qatar and Iran are close political allies. " “Iran and Qatar are allies, in fact, that have similar regional agendas — with the goal of destabilizing regimes allied with the US being chief among them. Qatar for years has sided with Iran in one proxy fight after another, whether in Bahrain, Yemen or in backing Hamas terror against Israelis and Palestinians.” (Mohamed Fahmy, Op-Ed, “Al Jazeera: Qatar’s Criminal Mouthpiece,” Arab News, 12/5/17) Fahmy further noted that "“Even when Qatar officially joined GCC positions against Iran, its real foreign policy — the so-called news pumped out by my former employer Al Jazeera — was on full display to anyone with a satellite dish or Internet, showing unquestionably that the emirate was firmly aligned with the mullahs, not with its Arab neighbors or the US.” (id.)  Qatar also has a record of aiding and abetting Iran-backed terrorist organization terrorist attacks & acts of war not only through sympathetic coverage but by giving realtime information useful to launching more precise missile attacks aimed at civilians.

For example, Israeli victims of terror brought a lawsuit against Al Jazeera over its involvement in Hezbullah's missile attacks in the summer 2006. "“The rockets fired by Hezbollah during the Hezbollah Rocket Barrage had no internal guidance system, and aiming the rockets accurately was an extremely difficult task. The only way for Hezbollah to accurately aim these rockets was to obtain information regarding the precise location where a given rocket landed, and to adjust the direction and trajectory of subsequent rockets accordingly. Hezbollah needed to obtain this information in real-time, in order to correlate between specific rockets fired and their specific places of impact.” (Chaim Kaplan, Rivka Kaplan, et al. v. Al Jazeera, Case 1:10-cv-05298-KMW, United States District Court For The Southern District Of New York, Filed 7/18/11)

The parties accused Al Jazeera of providing real-time audiovisual footage of Israeli locations. In other words, through Al Jazeera, Qatari government going as far back as 2006, was siding with an Iran-backed terrorist organization.  Following the imposition of the boycott by the members of Anti-Terrorism Quartet - KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain - in 2017, Qatar claimed that its close relationship with Iran, including increase in gas trade and frequent high level visits - had to do with the economic hardships allegedly brought on by the air, land, and naval blockade. The relationship actually goes back even further than that. Despite Iran's promise of exporting its Khomeinist revolution towards creating a Shi'a Crescent in the Middle East, and despite the repeated targeting of other Gulf States, including Bahrain (which had led to the creation of the GCC in the first place), Iran had actually backed Qatar and sided with it against Saudi Arabia in various border disputes in 1992. Qatar's willingness to play ball was seen by the regime as an important opportunity in countering less willing states and advancing its agenda in the region. For that reason, Tehran was cooperating with Qatar as with an ally on political, economic, and defense issues early on.  Doha was friend, not food, ally, not adversary.

In reality, however, that was not the case, as Qatar had other routes for reaching other countries, and remained the richest country in the world per capita, even following the two years of this boycott.  In fact, Qatar and Iran, which for a short period of time appeared not to have diplomatic relations despite all this background activities, restored their diplomatic relations in defiance of the 13 demands set forth by the ATQ as a condition to ending the boycotts.

A year later, Iranian officials boasted of the blossoming and deepening relations, a far cry from the pro forma efforts supposedly to sustain Qatar's "crumbling" economy. The brief souring in the relations came in the wake of the 2016 attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. A number of Sunni majority countries had severed relations with Iran following this incident in solidarity with KSA; however, Qatar restored it as soon as the boycott was imposed.  Ending cooperation with Iran was one of the key demands by the ATQ. Why was it such a priority if at the time of the demands Doha and Tehran did not have fully diplomatic relations?

In reality, it appears that the cooperation was ongoing, and that the withdrawal of diplomatic presence was symbolic and done largely for Qatar to have its cake and eat it, too. None of the background reality, which included Qatar's continuous support for Iranian proxies in various countries, was ever fully articulated by the ATQ to the Western public, which, despite awareness of some historical tensions, was stunned by the circumstances which led to the imposition of the boycott, and interpreted the kerfuffle as nothing more than a family fight, rather than a decision that was closely tied to other circumstances that Saudi Arabia's new Crown Prince was looking to confront - including how Qatar's interference and cooperation with Iran was complicating the war in Yemen, with which he had been entrusted since 2015.

While the Saudis were focused on internal affairs and ignored the necessity of strong communications with the West, Qatar, too downplayed many aspects of this situation, portraying itself as an underdog that was being bullied by large powers in the region. It successfully played on regional stereotypes and shallow perceptions of the GCC relations to claim that its ties with Iran were purely defensive and nothing more than an inevitable economic necessity in response to the isolation by its neighbors.

Rather, the relationship is deep-rooted, political, and goes far beyond Qatar's alleged protection of self-interest or concern about a potential attack on its territory by Saudi Arabia, as it has claimed in the past. There was no legitimate reason for Qatar to be involved in Hezbullah attacks on Israeli civilians, nor in giving platforms to members of IRGC and various terrorist organizations, which used the opportunity as a form of ideological outreach and soft power in the region, attracting followers and disseminating hateful messages and political agendas of the Iran regime and their organizations. Indeed, when Qatar withdrew from OPEC in December 2018, it sent a signal not of financial hardship, but rather a message of defiance and beaconed  its deepening economic and military relationship with Iran. Claiming that it will shift from focusing on oil to gas, Qatar was essentially saying that it was seeing a new opportunity and a more primary partnership in Iran, and did not see a future with the Arab states in the organization.

In 2009, Al Jazeera sided with Tehran in its coverage of the Green Movement, which was taken over by pro-government forces,  referring to the uprising as an "unfinished popular revolution". During the 2017 mass protests over corruption all over Iran, Al Jazeera did not side with the protesters. Thus, one can see that Qatar's support for Iran's foreign policy has been consistent over a number of years, and over a number of heads of states changing in the US and Saudi Arabia.  The relationship has grown over time; to be sure, Qatar and Iran have joint economic interests, but the political depth of the relationship is undeniable.The two countries have signed various defense treaties and have held dozens of meetings between security officials. By the point of Syria war, just as Qatar was using Iran as a distribution actor for money, Iran sought to use Qatari influence among armed groups to avoid conflict between its own militias and the various terrorist organizations, and to advance its agenda of embedding in Syria.

Therefore, when reviewing statements by the Qatari government, one must keep in mind the historical context and the many dimensions of Qatar's engagement with Iran, where there appears to be strategic coordination on many levels, including with respect to government coverage, and Qatar's engagement with Iran's proxies, that go far beyond self-defense, especially following the appearance of US and Turkish bases on Qatari soil.

Some of the foreign policy dealings between Qatar and Iran appear to be disguised as hostage-taking ransom, in which Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'a militias took a cut. Qatar reportedly paid around $1billion to Iran for the release of a large group of Qatari royals who were allegedly taken hostage while hunting in IRaq. Despite this, Qatar's wealth somehow did not diminish....it appears, that money was not a sudden and unexpected expense, as Doha would have everyone to believe, but was taken into an account. Qatar continued getting richer. In addition to meeting the financial demand, some of which went directly to Qassem Soleimani, according to hacked and leaked messages,  the designated terrorist and head of IRGC's  sabotage & intelligence unit, the Al Quds Brigade, and a lot of which ended up being distributed to various Iran-backed terrorist groups in Syria. Furthermore, Qatar also met Iran's political demands in assisting with relocation of Sunni groups in two Syrian cities, which allowed for Iran-backed Shi'a militias to embed themselves deeper into Syria, and made extrication of pro-Assad forces nearly impossible. On the surface, this development appears to show how easily Iran can take advantage of foolish and irresponsible Qatari royalty, which is ready to throw money left and right.

More likely, however, this was yet another coordinated joint campaign, thinly veiled as rescue mission, for the purpose of giving the Emir plausible deniability and shielding him from Western criticism over the role Qatar came to play in Syria. A more plausible explanation for this operation was to find a suitable vehicle for Qatar's financing of Iranian agenda in Syria. Qatar was using Iran's hands to finance the various terrorist organizations in Syria and to undermine Western objectives. At the same time, Doha helped Tehran, which had initially suffered heavy losses through its proxy Hezbullah, to achieve its goals in helping Assad reclaim strategic territory. Eventually, more moderate Sunni groups opposing Assad were driven to giving up and Assad indeed succeeded in reconsolidating his hold over Syrian territory - a task that would have been far more difficult if US had allowed SDF and other groups to counter his forces to begin with, but also would have been much more daunting without the finances going into Shi'a groups that fought with the army against challengers.

Further evidence of Qatar's more direct involvement with pro-Iran terrorist groups puts the above event in context. Leaked emails disclosed contacts between Qatari officials and members of these militias. US ultimately warned Qatar to stop funding this group. There has been no evidence that this funding has ever ceased, despite US pressure. There has also been no evidence that US has taken any action to leverage its interests in cessation of this funding over Qatar by threatening or imposing any sanctions or ceasing any business or security cooperation over these unseemly ties with a country hosting a major US base in the region. Qatar, however, demonstrated where it stood by consistently siding with Iran and against US interests in any major foreign policy developments. It criticized US pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ('the nuclear deal"); and also critiqued US designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, and other pressure points against Iran. Qatar further opposed US withdrawal of oil waivers for trade with Iran. The reason Qatar defended the IRGC was quite simple: it has a strong relationship with Iran, which it has no interest in damaging - even if it means no restored ties with the ATQ. Qatar also benefits from its relationship with IRGC and openly supports their activity.

Even if there was no direct relationship,Al Sharq Al Awsat's Salman AlDossary explains, Qatar would not risk undermining its alliance with Iran and Turkey by criticizing the other two in any way.  Qatar also did not wish to be seen as a traitor by Tehran after abandoning it, and possibly feared future retribution. Along with Iran, Qatar and Turkey were also testing the resolve of the Trump administration, and felt they would be better off waiting it out until Trump left office and someone more amenable came to power. All these reasons, however, come down to a simple fact: far from seeing Iran as a temporary ally of convenience, Qatar sees its future in aligning with Tehran. It does not foresee the regime falling anytime soon, because due to its close relationship with Tehran, it understands the internal conditions far better than somewhat naive Western outsiders. And despite having a habit of playing games with all sides, Qatar does not see long-term alliances with its Sunni rivals in the region, because it  has no intention of ever abandoning its long term agenda, nor does it wish to bend the knee to Saudi Arabia in exchange for protection against the Muslim Brotherhood or various jihadist groups.

Indeed, that relationship is so close that in defiance of US disapproval, Qatar is said to be hosting IRGC presence in its own territory. Even before IRGC was sanctioned by Washington, however, Egyptian sources shared information that the Guards were assigned to protect Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani inside his palace. Is US military station in the peninsula unaware of IRGC's clandestine activity? One can only speculate at this point, but given the administration's willingness to allow the designated terrorist Qassem Soleimani roam free in Iraq, and having failed to enforce measures in response to Qatar's support for various terrorist organizations - and in fact, employing Doha's services as a mediator in various conflicts, such as with Taliban - it is likely that for political reasons, the administration may be aware of Qatar's close ties with the Revolutionary Guards and is deliberately ignoring it. At about the same time, former UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon had warned the Security Council in a report that Iran  may have breached arms embargo by supplying missiles and other weapons to Lebanon's Hezbullah. Given Qatar's close links to all these proxies, including a report before congress by Jonathan Schanzer and others in 2017 stating that Qatar was funding Hizbullah and other Iranian proxies, the chances that Doha would have been complicit in this development but kept silent, were quite high.

And at the height of the summer's oil tanker crisis in the Strait of Hormuz,  Iranian and Qatari Foreign  Ministers met to discuss cooperation; the Qatari FM stressed his country's interests in expanding cooperation with Iran in all fields. Indeed, Iran's FM Zarif visited Doha right after communing with the Houthi officials. The suspicious timing indicated a pattern of cooperation, if not coordination, between Iran, Houthis, and Qatar, which meant that Qatar likely discussed Houthi attacks on their neighbors and other targets in the region with Zarif.

All of that took place following a series of attacks that could only have come from Iran or its proxies, which had targeted Arab Gulf states, as well as a US drone. Despite evidence presented by the US pointing at Iran and its proxies in the attacks ranging from oil tankers to drones and Aramco sites, Qatar at no point criticized or condemned these actions by Iran or its proxies. It also did not criticize Iran's ban of US officials, including Senator Ted Cruz, or designation of various US foreign policy think tanks and analysts as terrorists. Indeed, when the Arab states called an emergency summit following the earlier attacks and condemned Iran's role in these attacks on oil tankers as well as targets in Saudi Arabia, Qatar criticized this "hardline" position, and expressed reservation, thus remaining consistent in defending Iran even despite all evidence pointing to its involvement in these attacks. Why would Iran continue to defend Iran after the repeated acts of aggression? Besides above-cited reasons, if Qatar knew about Iran's attacks before they happened, any criticism of Iran over this issue could implicate Qatar in any future investigations. In essence, if Qatar was in any way involved or knew about the attacks in advance, it now had no choice but to deny everything.

Besides the generally shared vision for the region which would have helped Qatar escape Saudi dominance and assert its own will across the region, there were other, more short-term reasons for Qatar to be supportive of oil tanker attacks, and perhaps even the attacks on the Saudi Aramco sites. This support would not have been far-fetched as it would have been consistent with Qatar's involvement in the many Iran-backed terrorist operations, agendas, and campaigns and likewise fit the pattern of Qatar's inaction and tacit support for the oil tanker attacks. The reason for all of that was financial benefit from the possible disruption of ARAMCO's upcoming and lucrative IPO, which would have made Saudi Arabia economically competitive with its much smaller rival.

Furthermore, after attacks by Saudi and Israeli air forces against various Iranian militias on the Iraqi-Syrian border, Qatar had expressed no criticism of the militia activity which had threatened the security of these states. But were political comments and strategic silence by Qatar mere evidence of passive and tacit approval of Iran's action? Or is there a pattern showing that Qatar was a party to Iran's summer reign of terror? The intelligence report cited by Fox News certainly points in that direction.

Qatar showed itself to be a troublesome ally in other ways, as well. Despite hosting the US Al Ubeid base and engaging with US in lucrative defense deals, Qatar has been known to play an unhelpful role in Yemen, where the Qatari troops which once fought with the Arab Coalition were thought to have passed military intelligence to the Iran-backed Houthis. Qatar was later evicted from the Coalition after the imposition of the boycott, but since then, evidence accumulated of Qatar's continuing cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah, as well as the Houthis. Indeed, Qatar apparently rendered political, financial, and military help, assisting Iran with smuggling money and weapons to the separatists.Meanwhile experts warned that Qatar may be likewise sharing US intelligence with Iran, imperiling the security of the Al Ubeid base, as well as American-led operations in the region. These same Houthis had threatened threatened to strike positions in UAE, and praised Qatar and Turkey, thanking them for their support. This happened in September, 2019 at around the time of Aramco attacks. Leading analysts on Iran have warned the administration about Doha's relationship with Tehran and the negative repercussions for the region and for US' military alliance with Qatar.

All of this leads to the reasonable conclusion that not only was Qatar likely informed by Iran about the plan to attack the Aramco sites in September, but likely had coordinated with Iran and helped make it happen smoothly. After all, according to the US intelligence, the attacks on those sites occurred likely from South Iraq and Ahwaz region, and less likely from some Houthi stations in Yemen. All of these areas, however, came under observation point of the US base in Qatar, not to mention assorted US drones in the area, and satellites. As we know in retrospect, combined US, British, and Israeli intelligence operating in the area failed to intercept information and predict the attacks. Perhaps, Qatari involvement played a role in the deception that may have misled the operatives. Jointly with Iran, Qataris may have produced contradictory human intelligence, or provided incongruous explanations and analysis for the images captured by drones and other signals intelligence. They could have even interfered with the intelligence gathering process in some way. At the very least, Qataris could have had key information necessary to "complete" whatever the allies would have collected concerning the movement of the forces responsible for the attack and simply withheld it, disrupting or complicating the process through omission.

Investigating Qatar's possible role in compromising intelligence operations related to preventing the Aramco attack should be the natural first step in preventing future incidents in which Iran could have benefited from Qatari assistance. Qatar cannot play to both masters. It cannot simultaneously invest into the relationship with Iran as the future hegemon in the region and be a trustworthy ally to the United States in the most sensitive area of combating its threat.  Clearly, Qatar's role in intelligence operations may explain a great deal of why so many things have gone wrong for so many members of the anti-Iran coalition; at the same time, the US military is possibly opening itself up to grave danger if Iran finds itself cornered and Qatar sees no other opportunity for preserving itself interests and undermining KSA. While Qatar benefits greatly from business with the US and from the investment into soft power, when the push comes to shove, Qatar will always choose its own agenda over US security, as US to Doha is merely a convenient and useful tool, a means to an end. There is no real friendship.

Overreliance on Qatar due to its convenient location and seeming willingness to cooperate due to some level of self-interest is dangerous and is leading the US into a trap. Other options should be considered. If the US wants to ensure a strong alliance against Iran's aggression, it should, perhaps invest into building stronger relations with other regional allies and perhaps shifting its troops where they are both needed and are more likely to find invested and reliable partners, rather than operatives with dual loyalties. As Jonathan Schanzer pointed out in his 2017 Congressional testimony on US-Qatar relations, the base there is convenient but not inevitable, and US can redistribute its troops elsewhere, while making itself less dependent on a shifty country. Furthermore, using the threat of the move as leverage will further US interests, and perhaps can be used to keep Doha in line and more cooperative on future intelligence sharing.

Saudis have offered to welcome the US back to the old base in full numbers, and the financial benefit from the luxury base Qataris have built is not worth the cost in damage from the alliances weakened by US' non-response to Aramco and failure to take measures to prevent future such occurrences. Already, US passivity in the face of repeated backstabbings, betrayals, and red lines in the sand has damaged the seemingly united stand by the ATQ against Iran, as the UAE in particular appears to be taking steps to make concessions to Iran in order to protect its economic and security interest. It has released $700 million in frozen funds, reopened its embassy in Assad's Damascus, increased its trade with Iran, and has taken steps that may lead to some level of "normalization" with Iran, which will only isolate the more hardline Saudi Arabia. This development will ultimately lead to Iran's gloating legitimization in the region, and whatever victory US may have been getting out of the maximum sanctions pressure on the regime, will be undone by the forced cooperation by the Gulf States, and eventual capitulation to Iran's normalized presence and role in the region.

Ignoring Qatar's meddling and cooperation with Iran ensures this result. Without having useful fellow travelers, that can supply and assist with the proxies in times of need, the regime, already facing uncontainable protests internally, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, will likely have to cut back significantly on its operation and certainly will have a much harder time managing its seemingly endless supply of terrorists in Yemen and elsewhere.  For that reason, if the US administration is serious about preserving its relationships, and countering Iran's pernicious influence, it should reevaluate its relationship with Qatar and start holding Doha accountable for its role in Iran's destructive agenda and attacks on the US' real allies.

Categories: Iran - Qatar - irregular warfare

About the Author(s)

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer and analyst, who has written extensively for a variety of domestic and international publications on strategy, geopolitics, and security in the MENA region. Her work has been translated to many languages, including Arabic, and she has been interviewed and cited in a variety of Arabic-language media. Follow Irina on Twitter @irinatsukerman.