by Shahab Moghadam
Does the U.S. need another Pakistan in the Persian Gulf?
Friday the 13th is not typically considered an unlucky day in Iran. However, this year proved different. This year, President Trump used the inauspicious date to deliver a landmark speech lambasting Iran for its state-sponsorship of terrorism, human rights abuses, and various violations of the nuclear deal. In his speech, Trump laid forth a vision for a clear-eyed and sensible U.S. policy toward Iran that does not accept, and instead counters, its nefarious actions across the region as well as its support for terrorist groups worldwide.
The opposition from certain European countries willing to overlook Iran’s bad behavior to obtain commercial benefits has been predictable. However, the bulk of the response to the President’s speech, including from stalwart US ally Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, has been positive. Israel and many of America's Arab allies have long believed Tehran is a force for spreading chaos in the Middle East. But one nation has remained remarkably silent in the aftermath of the Iran speech, having played a double game on the Iran issue for several months without facing accountability or consequences: Qatar.
Qatar has been double-dealing in the Middle East for decades, paying lip service to Gulf Arab unity while simultaneously working to destabilize its neighbors. The world's largest exporter of natural gas, Qatar has used part of its wealth to finance extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Domestically, Qatar depends upon its poorly-treated and poorly-paid migrant labor force to sustain its development. In the process, the country often violates the human rights of those migrants.
Doha likes to think of itself as the 21st-century version of Rick’s Café from the classic 1942 film Casablanca. However, in the Qatari version, it is Islamists, not freedom fighters, who keep a low-profile in this safe haven.
Only in Doha can one see Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Egypt rubbing shoulders with Taliban leaders from Afghanistan and Hamas leaders from Gaza, for all of these groups have received support and hospitality from the Emir. Relaxing in their hotel rooms, members of these groups can turn their televisions to Al Jazeera. The state-run TV network has used its large budget to broadcast speeches from terrorists such as Osama bin Laden at the height of his terrorist campaign. As if this motley crew of global extremists were not prevalent enough in Qatar, the country is now poised to play home to a large Iranian presence.
The Qatari government argues that they are simply providing a venue for political dialogue by allowing radical groups to maintain homes and offices in their country. However, that does not explain their funding for such groups and their usage of their state media to broadcast sympathetic coverage.
Doha is also home to the Al-Udeid Air Base, where the US military maintains a large presence for its operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These American troops might feel increasingly out of place as the Qataris double down on their hospitality for their new Iranian friends. At the same time, more reliable partners of Washington such as the UAE have expressed willingness to host a relocated US military presence in a more appropriate environment, where Iran and other unsavory actors would not be the base’s neighbors.
The issue of Al-Udeid Airbase emerged again on Monday at a Washington, D.C. think-tank event attended by senior members of the Trump Administration. The event hosted by the Hudson Institute also attracted Leon Panetta, suggesting bipartisan concern over Qatar's activities.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon stated at that event that he felt the Qatar crisis was more important than the situation on the Korean peninsula.
“I don’t think it was just by happenstance that two weeks after the summit that we saw the blockade by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Egypt and the king of Saudi Arabia on Qatar,” he continued. He further solidified the idea that the United States has had its fill with the emirate’s misbehavior.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE or the “Anti-Terror Quartet,” as they call themselves, put an embargo on Qatar shortly after President Trump's delegation left the region. The president came out in support of this move in a tweet.
This summer, Doha's abrupt shift toward closer economic and political ties with Iran proved Trump correct. Despite this open and major shift in Qatari foreign policy, Doha has avoided scrutiny on its budding relationship with the regime in Tehran, instead of continuing to receive the benefits of playing host to the Al-Udeid air base, where the US military maintains a large presence for its operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the Tehran-Doha relationship has received a comparatively small amount of attention compared to Qatar’s ties to, say, the Muslim Brotherhood.
This alliance between the radical regime in Tehran and the isolated and malevolent Qatari government poses a serious risk to US interests across the Middle East. These two well-financed and ideologically-driven actors are already beginning to cooperate and align their policies from Libya to Syria and Bahrain to Gaza, thereby threatening the security interest of the US and its allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The United States doesn’t need another Pakistan in the Persian Gulf; it needs reliable allies. In an area where US allies are plentiful, the location of a large American contingent in a nation that has made clear its hostility toward Washington and its allies over the course of several decades lacks sense. The Trump administration would be well-advised to relocate the US military assets at the Al-Udeid airbase to a genuine ally in the region if Qatar does not leave the Iranian orbit.
Shahab Moghadam has worked on political campaigns on both coasts and is a professional writer in Washington D.C. He has traveled in and written extensively on the Middle East.
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