Iran-Qatar Diplomacy: A Challenge Against Russia?

Iran-Qatar Diplomacy: A Challenge Against Russia?
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who took office in August last year and visited Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Russia during this period, made his last trip abroad to Qatar on February 21. What made the visit notable was that it was the first visit by an Iranian President to Qatar in 11 years. The fact is that one of the most important reasons for the crisis that broke out between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on June 5, 2017, was that the member states were uncomfortable with Qatar's close relations with Iran. However, despite being one of the focal points of the crisis, then Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not pay any official visit to Qatar. Therefore, although one of the reasons for Raisi's visit was to attend the opening meeting of the 6th Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which began on February 22 in Doha, the capital of Qatar, with the title of “Natural Gas: Shaping the Energy Future”, there are issues related to the nuclear negotiations currently underway in Vienna and regional developments in the background.

In this regard, some consecutive meetings that took place in January 2022 are noteworthy. Firstly, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian traveled to Doha on January 11 and met with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. The focus of this visit was the ongoing Vienna talks on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran's request to Qatar to mediate in the release of Iranian-American and Iranian-European prisoners currently imprisoned in Iran. The primary reason why Qatar's name has come to the fore in this process is that it conducted active and successful diplomacy during the prisoner swap between the United States and the Taliban in 2014. 

In order to discuss all these issues in more depth, on January 27, the Qatari Foreign Minister went to Iran and met with his Iranian counterpart. The Emir of Qatar then went to the United States on January 31 and met with US President Joe Biden, which made him the first leader from the Gulf to pay the visit, discussed bilateral relations, as well as the ongoing nuclear negotiations and other Iran-related issues. It was important that this diplomacy occurred after US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley announced on January 24 that reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal is unlikely without the release of US prisoners. It is the fact that after the successive meetings of the Foreign Ministers of Qatar and Iran in Doha and Tehran, the meeting of the Emir of Qatar with the US President was a kind of a confirmation that both Iran and the US agreed that Qatar has an active role in the release of prisoners, which Malley cited as a prerequisite for the Vienna process.

On all these grounds, Raisi went to Doha on February 21, and after the meeting with the Emir of Qatar, the two countries signed 14 memorandums of understanding in the fields of aviation, trade, maritime, media, visa cancellation, electricity, education and culture. The most notable among these was the agreement to establish a connection between the two countries with an undersea tunnel. Accordingly, a feasibility study will be conducted first, and then a railway and road infrastructure will be built that will connect Iran's Port of Dayyer to Qatar.

The fact that Raisi's visit to Doha coincided with President Vladimir Putin's declaration on February 21 that Russia would recognize territorial claims of self-declared separatist republics in eastern Ukraine made the 6th Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) even more critical. GECF, of which Russia is also a founding member and has 11 members, represents 71 percent of the world's proven natural gas reserves, 43 percent of marketed production, 58 percent of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and 52 percent of pipeline trade. The possibility that Europe may have difficulties in gas supply after Russia's recent statements has inevitably prompted Europe to search for new avenues, and this has become a new source of motivation for the acceleration of the ongoing nuclear negotiation process in Vienna. If JCPOA is revived, Iranian natural gas exports, which have been interrupted by US sanctions, will gain momentum, and thus the supply shortage caused by Russia will be eliminated in a sense. A similar situation applies to Qatar. Coupled with this, Qatar, the world's second-largest LNG exporter, desires to further increase this potential after the Russian crisis. Therefore, the impact of this partnership of interests in the relations that have developed recently between Iran and Qatar is significant.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Russia has leverage on Iran and Qatar. Relations with Russia constitute a crucial pillar of the “Look to the East” policy that Raisi has emphasized since coming to power. However, Putin's distant stance during Raisi's last visit to Russia caused criticism in the Iranian public opinion. Even some opposition fronts, especially Reformists, emphasized that it is necessary to resolve problems with the international community and maintain relations with Russia at a certain level. However, Iran is not in a position to criticize Russia explicitly since Russia’s position is very critical in the ongoing Vienna talks. Therefore, based on the recent crisis between Russia and Europe over Ukraine, although an opportunity has arisen for Iran, it does not seem possible for Iran to achieve this in the current conjuncture with an attitude that completely surpasses Russia.

A similar situation is also true for Qatar. Qatar and Russia have an increasing cooperation. By prioritizing infrastructure projects, Russia considers GCC member states a vital source of investment in its national economy. In this context, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is of substance. The Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) is also one of the RDIF partners. Qatar is the leading country among foreign investors, with an investment of 13 billion dollars in the last seven years. This economic partnership between the two countries is likely to reflect in Syria as well. For Russia, splitting the cost of reconstructing Syria with Qatar and for Qatar cooperating with Russia to gain influence in Syria constitutes a mutual win-win formula.

Another prominent investor country in Russia is Saudi Arabia. Therefore, one of the questions that comes to mind is why Russia prefers Qatar over Saudi Arabia in its new Middle East initiative. In this regard, it is necessary to state that the competition between Russia and Saudi Arabia in the oil markets is the determining factor. The two countries are in a serious race with each other, particularly in the sale of oil to China. Among the countries from which China imports oil, Russia ranked first in 2019, while Saudi Arabia was first in 2020, and thus the OPEC+ process has become a controversial situation for Russia and Saudi Arabia. From this point of view, Qatar is becoming a more suitable partner for Russia in terms of partnership in the Middle East. Being aware of this, Qatar also acts strategically against Russia and facilitates the presence of Russian companies in the country. The Russian company Rosneft stands out in this sense. The QIA purchased a portion of Rosneft shares in 2018, increasing Qatar's share to 19%. In addition, Rosneft acted as an unofficial branch of Russian diplomacy during certain critical periods in Qatar and played essential roles in sensitive issues that Russia did not want to draw attention to. For instance, Rosneft Chief Executive Officer, visited Doha in March 2018 and conveyed a personal message from President Vladimir Putin to the Emir of Qatar. In addition, within the scope of the visit, it was decided to open the Rosneft International Center for Research and Development in Qatar. Therefore, these intensifying relations between Russia and Qatar will prevent Qatar from making a policy that will completely confront Russia.

To conclude, it should be noted that Iran and Qatar, the two prominent actors of the Gulf, are working up to the possibility of a positive outcome from the Vienna talks and intending to cooperate on energy supply. However, the fact that both countries have increasingly deepening relations with Russia also shows that it is not possible for any step they will take to be completely anti-Russian. Therefore, although the short-term crisis between Russia and Europe will provide an advantage for Iran and Qatar, both countries will continue to act cautiously.