The real danger in Qatar-Gulf feud is Iran

The Trump administration is scrambling to mend a diplomatic rift between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors and has grown increasingly worried that the emirate is drifting into Iran’s political and economic orbit, according to U.S. officials.

Such a shift, U.S. officials fear, would represent a major political realignment and a potential national security threat as Tehran challenges America and its Middle Eastern allies in the region, heightening the stakes of the Gulf dispute.

Months of shuttle diplomacy by U.S. officials have yielded what they consider significant concessions by the Qataris to ease tensions with its adversaries, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. But few U.S. officials or analysts expect an imminent end to the impasse.

The administration hopes a series of high-level visits to Washington by Gulf leaders may lessen the dispute. Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani visited President Donald Trump on Tuesday, with talks expected to encompass the Gulf rift.

“We’re working on unity in that part of the Middle East and I think it’s working out very well, there are a lot of good things happening,” Mr. Trump said at the White House meeting.

Mr. Trump’s role, the emir said Tuesday, “is very central to end this crisis in our region.”

At the Pentagon on Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomed Qatar as a “valued military partner and a longtime friend.” The U.S. announced a possible $300 million precision-weapons deal with Doha. Qatar hosts a major U.S. air base.

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Mr. Trump in Washington. United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is expected to visit Washington in coming weeks. The Emiratis, according to multiple U.S. officials, had pushed to be the last of the Gulf nations to visit with Mr. Trump in the current round of diplomacy.

Last summer, Gulf nations called out Qatar for supporting terrorism, charges Doha denied, and for aligning with Iran. In June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, sea and air embargo. Mr. Trump fanned the feud at first by siding with Qatar’s critics.

U.S. officials have grown concerned that the protracted conflict is endangering Washington’s strategic interests by pushing Qatar, a global financial hub, more deeply into Iran’s sphere of influence.

Trade between Iran and Qatar has surged in recent months as Doha has sought alternative trade routes and as exports from Saudi Arabia plunged to near zero.

Iranian non-oil exports to Qatar through September were up 127% on the year, according to Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization.

Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s National Civil Aviation Organization said last year it had seen an immediate 17% increase in air traffic as flights in and out of Qatar were forced to reroute through friendly airspace.

Qatar and Iran also share and jointly manage the world’s largest natural gas field, the South Pars/North Dome reservoir.

U.S. officials say they are worried a shift by Doha into Iran’s political and economic orbit would give Tehran access to U.S. dollars, money it then could funnel to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and other militant groups in the region.

Deeper ties with Qatar also could provide Tehran a pretext to send undercover agents into the country as merchants, making it harder to combat Iran’s illicit fundraising and influence operations in the region, U.S. officials believe.

U.S. military officials, worried about implications for security arrangements, have taken on a major role. Gen. Joe Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, has held extensive talks with Gulf counterparts since last summer. Mr. Mattis traveled to Bahrain last month and held talks on the issue during visits by Gulf leaders in Washington in recent weeks.

One U.S. military effort involves Bahrain’s decision last year to eject two Qatari naval officers from a group that oversees a 32-nation maritime task force hosted by Manama and known as Combined Maritime Forces. The U.S. is part of the task force. American military officials, including Gen. Votel and Mr. Mattis, have sought without success thus far to get them reinstated.

“When our friends are more focused on fighting each other, that means they are not spending as much time on other things,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

Washington has been able to address some of the Gulf differences through shuttle diplomacy. Marshall Billingslea, assistant Treasury secretary for terror financing, has traveled extensively to the region.

After one visit by Mr. Billingslea late last month, Qatar’s Interior Ministry added the names of 20 people and eight firms to its terror list, including several Qataris sanctioned by the U.S. and the United Nations as major terror financiers. The action sets the stage for Qatar to freeze and block their assets.

“A lot of countries were funding terrorism and we’re stopping it, it’s getting stopped and fast,” Mr. Trump said at the White House on Tuesday. “You’ve now become a very big advocate and we appreciate that,” he told Qatar’s emir.

But Qatar’s detractors said the Interior Ministry move was insufficient. “Apart from its obstinacy, Qatar is confirming the evidence against it and that its support for extremism and terrorism is at the heart of its crisis,” Anwar Gargash, U.A.E.’s foreign minister, tweeted.

Among other problems, Bahrain, as current head of the regional branch of the Financial Action Task Force, a global body set up to counter terror financing, so far has blocked Qatar from attending its Middle East and North Africa meetings.

Saudi Arabia has yet to let Qatar send officers to staff the new Terror Financing Targeting Center, a multination intelligence operation set up last year.

Saudi Arabia still wants Qatar to expel a number of people Riyadh considers terrorists, shut down Muslim Brotherhood operations in Doha, and silence the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera media network, according to a person familiar with the matter.

U.S. officials believe there is room for compromise on those issues. Still, even if Qatar were to address most of the complaints, officials say a long-running personal animosity will likely continue to fester.

The State Department has drafted plans for a meeting of leaders at Camp David, but Mr. Trump has signaled more progress is needed before a summit.

Source » wsj

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