By Varsha Koduvayur
February 28, 2019
Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani last week sent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a congratulatory cable in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, as did Qatar’s deputy emir and prime minister. The Peninsula, a semi-official English-language news site, even ran severalcelebratory pieces, including a photo of Iran’s ambassador to Qatar cutting a cake with several Qatari cabinet ministers. These are the latest signs that Doha continues to drift to the other side of the Gulf.
Qatari-Iranian ties have deepened since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain placed Qatar under a blockade in June 2017 after accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism by funding Islamist groups and hosting extremists while also cultivating close ties with the Islamic Republic. Two months later, Qatar restored full diplomatic ties with Iran in defiance of the Saudi-led bloc, which had demanded that it close Iranian missions in Qatar, expel members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and comply with sanctions on Iran. As the blockade heads toward its second anniversary, Qatar shows no sign of abandoning Iran.
Trade between Doha and Tehran has ballooned since the blockade, with Iran’s exports to Qatar doubling. After the Saudi-led bloc barred Qatar Airways from its skies, Iranian airspace now hosts 200 more Qatar Airways flights daily than pre-blockade. This enriches Iran by $2,000 per flight, the cost of its airspace fee. Doha’s flagship carrier recently added more routes to Iran, for a total of 20 non-stop flights per week to the Islamic Republic. Its foreign minister even criticized the U.S.’s re-imposition of sanctions, saying that Qatar is against “unilateral measures against any country” and that “sanctions are not the way forward.” Additionally, just days after the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, Doha hosted a joint Qatari-Iranian economic committee, the first such gathering in 13 years.
Remarkably, Doha has managed to deepen its ties to Washington while growing closer to Tehran. Last year, the U.S. and Qatar established an annual strategic dialogue for cabinet-level officials, which has seen two iterations so far. In these meetings, Qatar agreed to get tougher on terror finance, deepen counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., and expand the al-Udeid airbase, the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command.
But Washington should not reward an ally that brazenly flaunts ties with Iran while the U.S. is laboring to isolate the Islamic Republic both economically and diplomatically. Indeed, the Saudi-led blockade is not an excuse to engage with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. must condition future strategic dialogues and high-level access on tangible proof that Qatar is keeping Iran at arm’s length.