Clear-eyed Pragmatism: Qatar and the Coming and Going of Iranian Elections

Qatar is set to continue its policy of pragmatic engagement even if a hardliner takes over the presidency in Tehran. Constructive relations with Iran are part and parcel of Doha’s strategy to hedge its foreign relationships.

Image: Bianco

Cinzia Bianco



Qatar’s outlook towards the June 18 presidential elections in Iran is characterized by the same pragmatism that has defined the two countries’ relations for decades. Both Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and the country’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, have developed personal ties to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and would have worked exceedingly well with a hypothetical Zarif administration, but Zarif is not running for office. However, like other pragmatic players in the region, Doha could work with either a reformist or a conservative administration in Tehran and remains clear-eyed about the continued influence and power of the “deep state” institutions, including the office of the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Decision-makers in Qatar are looking closely at the former, the highest institution in the country, in part to identify which candidate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supports. Everything seems to point to Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative and Principlist politician whom Khamenei himself appointed chief justice in March 2019. Doha has not yet had much opportunity to engage directly with Raisi. But it stands ready to do so by leveraging existing institutional ties and personal connections, especially if the rumors that Raisi is well placed to succeed the 82-year-old Khamenei after his death intensify. In fact, Qatar has been preparing for a hardline government in Tehran for months already: reformists appeared to be in an increasingly difficult political position even before Iran's powerful election-vetting body, the Guardian Council, approved only seven candidates, all conservatives.

Common interests – first and foremost, their shared sovereignty over the South Pars/North Dome gas field, the largest in the world – have pushed Qatar and Iran towards dialogue and cooperation since the 1990s. While its proximity to a large neighbor that is mired in an economic crisis and carries out a disruptive foreign policy inevitably represents a risk for Qatar, engagement with Tehran is also viewed as an opportunity in Doha.

Under the framework of a “hedging” strategy, engaging with Tehran can be an effective way for Qatar to counterbalance the risks posed by other actors, including fellow Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is why former emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani invited then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Doha in December 2007, much to the dismay of other GCC leaders, and started conversations on the security of borders and critical infrastructure as well as potential joint military exercises shortly afterwards. In fact, the emir and his powerful prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, were the two major architects of Qatar’s policy of cautious engagement with Iran, successfully passing on this legacy to Emir Tamim in 2013. Hamad bin Jassim’s shrewd approach, in particular, was a masterful and yet maverick balancing act that even exposed him to accusations of collusion with the Iranian regime from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Still, this hedging mechanism proved its effectiveness when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE closed all borders with Qatar in June 2017. Transiting via Iran’s airspace and territorial waters then became vital for Qatar to be able to escape full isolation and continue exporting its energy resources, the single most important source of income for the Qatari government – and thus, arguably, its major lifeline throughout the crisis. Iran also provided shipments to help Doha avert a food security crisis.

Even with the Gulf crisis officially over since the January 2021 al-Ula declaration, Qatar has no urgency to undo the geopolitical network developed over the past few years, and it has many reasons to continue its policy of pragmatic engagement with its neighbor to the East.

The key question for Doha remains how much diplomatic continuity there will be under the next Iranian administration. While Doha assumes that there will be a degree of strategic continuity regardless of who governs in Tehran, there are concerns that engagement with the West may not be part of it. On the other hand, if indeed it makes sense for Qatar to maintain constructive working relations with Iran, its ties to Iranian rivals like the United States (US) and Saudi Arabia remain of unquestionably strategic value. The host of the regional headquarter of the US Central Command at the al-Udeid military base, Qatar has for decades considered the US an off-shore geopolitical and security guarantor. While the Saudi-Emirati policies on Qatar have arguably posed the gravest threat to the country’s stability in contemporary times, the depth of historical, political, social, and cultural ties in the Arabian Peninsula is binding.

In this context, Qatar regards regional and international escalation as counterproductive and even dangerous, given the risk that it could pay the price for rising tensions. To avert these risks, Doha engages in careful diplomacy around Tehran – and it continued to do so even in face of the difficulties and sensitivities associated with the “maximum pressure” agenda of the former US administration led by Donald Trump. For instance, when a US airstrike killed IRGC General Qassem Suleimani in January 2020, Qatar hastily sent emissaries to reassure Iran that the strike was not launched from al-Udeid and ensure that Iran would not retaliate by striking Qatari soil. These elements explain why Qatar offered its good offices with Iran to facilitate de-escalation with the US and in the region.

Qatar has supported the Iranian nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), since it was first negotiated and signed in 2015. Now that the Biden administration in the US is working to revive the deal, Qatar has repeatedly extended offers to help mediate between the sides, including as a way of enhancing its own politico-diplomatic clout. This offer has not been taken up so far, perhaps because there are some direct ties between the two administrations in Washington D.C. and Tehran and the European Union can also effectively meditate. However, the Qatari offer may be revisited under a Raisi administration, since Raisi has a generally hardline disposition, is skeptical of engagement with the West, and has been on the US sanctions list since 2019 for human rights violations. This is, of course, if the Iranian side can overcome its own lingering mistrust vis-à-vis the inherent ambiguity of Qatar’s friends-of-all posture.

A similar trust deficit, from more than one side, has so far also prevented Qatar from mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia or facilitating the regional security dialogue that Doha advocates for to increase regional stability. There is a wide gulf of perceptions and positions between Doha on one side and Riyadh or Abu Dhabi on the other. This is especially true with anything concerning Iran because Doha is not trusted to back up strategic Saudi interests on issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and the future of its regional proxy network. On the other hand, as long as the geopolitical balance of the region remains volatile, Doha is guaranteed to be a relevant interlocutor for the Gulf monarchies and, especially, for Iran. This value is linked to its special ties to Turkey, as well as its role as key mediator in Afghanistan’s conflicts and in other theaters in the wider Middle East and Africa region.

In addition, once the JCPOA is back in play, any new administration in Iran will be interested in preserving and expanding cooperation with Qatar on domains such as energy, trade, and investment. Iranian exports to Qatar jumped from around $60 million between 2016 and 2017 to $250 million between 2017 and 2018, indicating significant potential. In recent years, the two sides have revived the Joint Economic Cooperation Commission that worked on procedures to facilitate import and export flows. Qatar has also been supporting Iran throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by sending shipments of medicines and medical aids into the country.

Overall, while the upcoming presidential elections in Iran might trigger significant political developments within the country, they will probably have a more limited impact on the Islamic Republic’s relations with regional actors that have grown accustomed to navigating the Iranian system. Qatar certainly falls into this category. It has long pursued a policy of pragmatic engagement with Iran and will most probably continue to do so in the foreseeable future.



Dr Cinzia Bianco is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in Berlin, where she is working on political, security and economic developments in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region and relations with Europe. She holds an MA degree in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London and a PhD in Middle East Politics from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

On Twitter: @Cinzia_Bianco