Qatar on mission to break US-Iran stalemate

Iran foreign minister Javad Zarif (L) and Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani (R), Tehran. Feb. 15, 2021

With five days to go, Iran nuclear issue is tiptoeing toward a deadline on February 21 when Tehran is obliged by its domestic law to stop allowing inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency unless there is an easing of US sanctions. There is no discernible sign of a sense of urgency in Washington. But appearances can be deceptive.

The unscheduled visit to Tehran by the Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on Monday augurs well. On the other hand, the multiple rocket attack later on Monday at a US-led military base in Erbil, Kurdish northern Iraq underscores that “spoilers” are at work to ratchet up tensions.

A carefully worded report on the Iranian Foreign Ministry website showed that the remarks by the visiting Qatari foreign minister at his meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif all but suggested that he came on a mission underscoring his country’s “preparedness for playing an effective and pivotal role” in addressing the situation surrounding Iran.

Indeed, the Qatari minister previously had two separate calls last week with the US Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Al Thani was later quoted by the state news agency QNA on Wednesday as saying that Doha is working to de-escalate tension by advocating a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. In his words, “Qatar is working on de-escalation through a political and diplomatic process to return to the nuclear agreement.”

Al Thani said Qatar’s communication with both Iran and the US was ongoing, given the strategic ties Qatar holds with both. Significantly, even as Al Thani spoke, the US Central Command head, General Kenneth McKenzie, also said during an online discussion last Wednesday that Qatar’s geographic location can help assist mediation efforts between Iran and the US. [The US Central Command is headquartered in Doha.]

Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacted to the rocket attack on Erbil saying “Initial reports indicate that the attacks killed one civilian contractor and injured several members of the Coalition, including one American service member and several American contractors.” In a notable departure from his predecessor Mike Pompeo’s Pavlovian reflexes, Blinken calmly pledged “support for all efforts to investigate and hold accountable those responsible.”

Evidently, Blinken took care not to make any unsubstantiated allegations against Iran. But Blinken’s restraint will not go down well in Tel Aviv. President Joe Biden is yet to have a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it is a touchy juncture for Netanyahu who is up for re-election next month, and always flaunted his special links to the Oval Office. Netanyahu’s credibility suffers on the campaign trail when he is riding the wings of tough rhetoric on Iran while not yet having any direct communication with Biden.

Meanwhile, reports appeared that Russia’s Envoy for the Middle East Settlement Vladimir Safronkov and the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr have discussed “constructive cooperation to promote” the West Asian peace process.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement said, “The sides discussed prospects for cooperation between Moscow and Washington on the track of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement, including within the format of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators. The Russian side hailed the United States’ readiness to resume its full-fledged participation in the Quartet and spoke in favour of invigorating bilateral dialogue on the Middle East settlement problems. In general, the sides stated mutual commitment to constructive cooperation in order to promote peace process in the Middle East.”

This is a body blow to Israel, which has so far got away with a strategy to play up the Iran nuclear issue, tap into the discords among the Persian Gulf states, fuel US-Iran tensions and incite a military confrontation, and nip in the bud even incipient signs of any US-Iran engagement — virtually, do all it could, no matter what its takes, to distract the attention of the international community away from the Palestinian issue.

Ambassador Hady Ama, a Lebanese-born Arab-American, was former President Barack Obama’s deputy special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations for Economics and Gaza working on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and Biden has brought him back to head the state department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Ama is credited with close ties to the Palestinian leadership.

The Biden administration has announced that the US will restore ties with the Palestinian leadership, reopen the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s diplomatic mission in Washington, and renew aid to the UNRWA (UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees around the world (UNRWA). Palestinian officials have welcomed these announcements.

Now, Amr is one of the multiple appointments of Arab-Americans made by Biden to top positions in the administration, who include Reema Dodin (Palestinian descent) as the deputy-director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, Bechara Choucair (Lebanese descent) as the White House Vaccinations Coordinator, Dana Shubat (Jordanian descent) as senior legal affairs advisor to the president, and Maher Bitar (Palestinian descent) as director for intelligence on the National Security Council.

Suffice to say, there is more than meets the eye in Foreign Minister Al Thani’s mission to Tehran on Monday. A complex picture is emerging with Biden administration nimbly dancing around the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal) and preparing the ground to engage with Iran by first creating a conducive atmosphere for constructive discussions.

Indeed, Biden has made a few positive moves already signalling the desire to de-escalate tensions with Tehran. Thus, Biden has:

  • ordered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz our of the Persian Gulf;
  • frozen the multi-billion dollar mega arms deals with the UAE and Saudi Arabia;
  • terminated US support to Saudi-led war in Yemen;
  • assembled a national security team of pro-diplomacy advocates (Iran envoy Robert Malley, NSA Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns).

The known unknown is whether Biden has reached out to Russia and China. In all probability, Washington is working on getting the two key JCPOA signatories (and UN Security Council members) on board who are credited with influence over Iran. Interestingly, Kerry, the architect of the JCPOA, telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday (ostensibly to discuss climate change.)

Ideally, US would like to calm the intra-Persian Gulf strife. Qatar, which shares a major gas field with Iran, has all along called on Gulf Arab states to enter talks with Iran even while the Trump administration worked to build a united front against Tehran in the Gulf.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani received visiting Qatari Foreign Minister, Tehran, Feb. 15, 2021

Tehran has spelt out what its expectations from the US are in order to commence negotiations. The immediate question now is what happens on February 21. Conceivably, Al Thani brought to Tehran a possible road map. He handed over a letter from the Emir of Qatar to Iran’s president. The bottom line is that things may not be as bleak as they appear. There is a note of stoic acceptance in the words of the Israeli envoy to Washington – as if the train is set to leave and Israel is not on board.