Yesterday, the Iranian foreign ministry announced an upcoming visit from the emir of Qatar—a country recently designated a “major non-NATO ally” by Washington. Such a move is typical of Doha’s diplomatic approach, as Danielle Pletka explains:
Almost alone in the Middle East, the small emirate of Qatar has managed to walk the balance beam between powerful actors: housing a key U.S. air base, al-Udeid, and enjoying a defense pact and major non-NATO ally status with the United States, all the while maintaining friendly relations with Iran; hosting senior leaders of U.S.-designated terrorist groups including Hamas, the Taliban, and assorted other terrorist actors; and continuing to finance and promote Al Jazeera, a vast media network that routinely pushes anti-Israel, anti-U.S., pro-Iran, and pro-Muslim Brotherhood messaging.
This strategy has in the recent past put Qatar at odds with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states. But that’s changing, as these countries have dipped their toes in reconciliation with Iran and its Syrian client state while working to improve relations with Russia and China. Pletka writes:
For Washington’s traditional Gulf partners, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, everything revolves around the question of who will defend them against Iran and its proxies. In the Obama era, the answer was clear in their minds: the United States would be on Iran’s side. . . . But many believed Obama was an aberration. Hope revived in the Trump era, but it quickly became clear after Iranian-sponsored attacks on key Saudi oil facilities that even the most virulent of Iran’s foes in the White House would not spring to Riyadh’s defense. Needless to say, Biden’s team—peopled by former Obama administration officials and a vice-president who made denouncing Saudi Arabia a key element of her foreign policy—would not be an improvement. Thus solidified the Gulf’s era of hedging.
Tehran’s willingness to take advantage of Gulf hedging is a shrewd strategy. It doesn’t signify any alteration in Iran’s overall ambitions for itself and its proxies, but it does underscore a willingness to play the game that Qatar copyrighted. And in the short term, that willingness may diminish the open war of attrition between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites and cement in place Iran’s hegemony over Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. More importantly for the United States, it means an almost complete loss of influence in the region.