Qatar crisis: Iran is not the only catalyst of the Middle East's turmoil

Amin Saikal
4 July 2017

No Arab monarchy found the Muslim Brotherhood's rise in Egypt more challenging than Saudi Arabia.

It is now two years since the signing of the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers. According to the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has complied fully with the agreement. Yet the enmity between the US and Iran has reached fever pitch under Donald Trump's presidency.

Trump, with his Israeli and Arab allies, has squarely targeted Iran as the main culprit for almost all the problems bedevilling the Middle East. He denounced it as the source of instability and extremism in the region, and put it "on notice".

Some analysts have raised the spectre of a US-Iranian military confrontation. They include former US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who recently penned an article in Politico to this effect. While the Trump administration's Middle East policy remains very incoherent, a military engagement with Iran could be disastrous for all sides.

Iran is not an entirely innocent party in the conflicts raging in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Nor can it be dismissed as a source of growing Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian tensions and support for various sub-national groups, ranging from the Lebanese Hezbollah to the Iraqi Mahdi Army. Iran's involvement in these developments is part of a strategy of building a regional security architecture, stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. This, plus Iran's partnership with a re-assertive Russia, makes US concerns and those of its Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia, understandable.

However, to blame solely Iran for the growing regional turmoil is to overlook other fundamental issues that darken the Middle East. It would be a gross oversight to ignore the role that the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the flawed US intervention in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, and the botched approach to the Syrian crisis have played in opening the space for Iran to extend its strategic reach.

It would equally be tragic to turn a blind eye to the tensions and conflicts that have gripped the Arab world, manifested in the so-called Arab spring popular uprisings, the Saudi Arabian-led Arab efforts to restore the status quo, and the funding that has gone from some Gulf Cooperation Council states, not just Qatar, to Syrian rebels. Some of this funding has ended up in the hands of such extremist groups as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or what is now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and also indirectly to the self-proclaimed Islamic State as anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iran groups.

The latest move by Saudi Arabia and two of its Gulf council GCC allies - the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain - plus Egypt, to isolate and punish one of their own, Qatar, on the grounds that the emirate was supporting Islamist terrorism, is a further example of the perpetual conflicts that have struck the Arab landscape. However, Qatar's pursuit of an autonomous regional policy, involving good working relations with Iran, seems to be the main irritant. The Saudi-led demands for lifting the blockade of Qatar included that Qatar downgrade its relations with Iran, close down its Al Jazeera TV network (the only media in the Arab domain that was critical of authoritarian practices in the Arab world) and sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

The Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victory in the 2012 Egyptian elections and its year-long term in government before the military overthrew it shocked the Egyptian establishment and challenged the political legitimacy of the Gulf monarchies to the extent they denounced the movement as a terrorist organisation. No Arab monarchy found the Muslim Brotherhood's rise more challenging than Saudi Arabia, which claims the leadership of the majority Sunni Islam against Iran's championship of the minority Shi'ite Islam. The Saudis and their allies dislike Hamas because it originally grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, and because of its rule of Gaza, where Qatari humanitarian and reconstruction aid was been critical in making a difference to the lives of the mostly impoverished 2 million inhabitants of the strip under Israeli blockade since 2007.

Qatar rejected the Saudi-led demands as unrealistic and repugnant to its sovereignty. The blockade has already proved counterproductive, as it pushed Qatar further towards Turkey and Iran, which rushed military support and food supplies to the emirate respectively.

Coming on top of all this is the Trump administration's confused and contradictory rhetoric and action. Its lambasting of Iran as the source of all evils in the region belies its confirmation that Iran has honoured the nuclear agreement and the unspoken fact that it has shared the US's fight against Islamic States.

Whatever the final outcome of the US-Iranian hostilities, if it leads to a shooting war it is bound to set off a chain of uncontrollable conflicts in the region. Iran does not possess the military strength and firepower to withstand a sustained attack by the US or, for that matter, Israel, or both. However, it is resourceful enough to make any attack very costly for its perpetrators by engaging in asymmetrical warfare and causing an inferno across the region. A combination of Iranian fierce nationalism and Shi'ite allegiance, as well as regional links, could make such a conflict very expensive and protracted. Russian involvement could widen beyond Syria, where the risk of a major-power confrontation is now also high.

Amin Saikal is distinguished professor of political science and director of the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia). He is the author of Iran at the Crossroads (Polity Press, 2016).

This opinion piece was originally published in the Canberra Times on Tuesday 4 July 2017.