Files show Qatar’s delicate balance

Leaked embassy cables show how Qatar walks a fine line in maintaining its diplomatic relationships with the US and Iran.

Clinton and al-thani
The cables reveal that the apparently friendly nature of the relationship between Qatar and Iran worries the US [EPA]

Among the secret diplomatic cables thus far released by WikiLeaks are a few that give insight into the US view of Qatar, as well as Qatar’s stance on regional issues in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In preparation for the January 4 visit of Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (referred to as “HBJ”), Qatar’s prime minister, to Washington, D.C., Joseph LeBaron, US ambassador to Qatar, drafted a cable to D.C. as a primer with talking points and issues to address with Hamad bin Jassim.

A mix of the positive (such as Qatar’s focus on food security for the Arab region and its readiness to invest in Iraq) as well as the problematic (insufficient cooperation on US counterterrorism measures), the cable succinctly fleshes out key ares of US concern with Qatar.

A delicate point of contention is Qatar’s relationship with Hamas, the ruling Palestinian party which the US does not recognise as a legitimate political party, classifying it as af terrorist organisation and excluding it from round after round of peace talks with Israel.

LeBaron seemed to realise that the Bush administration, had, in essence, helped author the narrative with which the US was now uncomfortable:

Qatar almost certainly will not be willing to break off ties or dialogue with Hamas. If asked to do so, we think HBJ will explain that the Amir gave his word to both Hamas and Fatah that he would financially support the winner of democratic elections in Palestine. Hamas won those elections, which the Bush Administration pressed the Amir to support actively.  The Amir believes that it would be dishonorable to isolate Hamas after he convinced its leaders to participate in elections that were backed by the United States.

Constant reassurance

If LeBaron felt that the US had no talking room with Qatar’s relationship with Hamas, he saw room for discussion when it came to the Gulf state’s relationship with Iran, which hinges, he wrote, on the “mammoth natural gas field” Qatar shares with Iran.

While that economic tie is key, LeBaron pointed out that added that Qatar does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons.

“We are convinced that Qatar will not be dissuaded from maintaining those ties,” wrote LeBaron.

Qatar, of course, is aware of the nature of US concerns, and makes efforts to assuage those worries.

cable dated December 20, 2009, details a conversation between  Joseph LeBaron, Daniel Poneman, US deputy secretary of energy and Qatar’s prime minister, where Hamad bin Jassim gave the Americans some pointers on how to handle Iran. 

Al Jazeera’s complete coverage of the leaked files

“The best way to deal with the Iranians, he said,” reads the cable, “is to get them to dictate the terms of any such deal. The US and its partners should strive to get the Iranians to put the details in writing, including timetables for implementation.”

In an effort to calm US concerns that Qatar is is a bit too (seemingly) tight with Iran which George W. Bush, former US president, dubbed a member of the “axis of evil” countries, al-Thani characterised Qatar’s relationship with Iran as one of mutual diplomatic dishonesty.

“They lie to us, and we lie to them,” al-Thani reportedly told Poneman, adding that Qatar encouraged Iran to negotiate with the West on the nuclear issue.

Earlier that year, Hamad al-Attiyah, Qatar’s military chief of staff, visited Iran in July where the two countries carried out joint training exercises. LeBaron wrote in an August 2009 cable that al-Attiyah downplayed the importance of his visit to Iran as a means of “maintaining open channels of communication with Iran”. LeBaron quotes al-Attiyah of saying that as far as Iran goes, “while we’re neighbours, we’re not friends”.

At yet another meeting detailed in a February 23 cable, Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, told Sen. John Kerry that based on three decades of experience with Iranians,  “they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100”. 

Israel’s complaints

Another cable, dated less than two weeks after al-Attiyah’s visit to Iran, Meir Daga, Mossad’s director, met with Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism to discuss, among other things, Qatar:

Dagan characterized Qatar as “a real problem,” and accused Sheikh Hamid of “annoying everyone.”  In his view, Qatar is trying to play all sides – Syria, Iran, Hamas – in an effort to achieve security and some degree of independence.  “I think you should remove your bases from there…seriously,” said Dagan.  “They have confidence only because of the US presence.”  [Editor’s note: Dagan was likely referring to Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani]

All of the “sides” Dagan claimed Qatar was playing represent potential threats to Israel, Hamas, against which “only Israeli military operations” would be effective; Iran, for its leadership’s “wish to see the destruction of Israel” and Syria for its “willingness to retaliate over even the smallest incident”.

Issues with Qatar’s diplomatic policies aside, Dagan also took the time to take a swipe at Al Jazeera:

Dagan predicted, with some humour, that al-Jazeera would be the next cause of war in the Middle East as some Arab leaders (specifically Saudi Arabia) are willing to take drastic steps to shut down the channel, and hold Sheikh Hamid personally responsible for its provocations.

Source: Al Jazeera

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