The rift in West Asia escalated further when the Islamic State took credit for two brazen attacks in Tehran this week, resulting in the deaths of at least a dozen people and wounding of dozens more. Gunmen reportedly dressed as women stormed the main gate of the parliament building in central Tehran and opened fire on Wednesday. They took a number of hostages, and at least one detonated a suicide bomb even as another suicide bomber targeted civilians at the Ayatollah Khomeini mausoleum about 15 miles away.
The Islamic State, which advocates a radical Salafi version of Sunni Islam and regards Shias as heretics, claimed responsibility for the attacks, which are believed to be the terrorist group’s first major assaults within Iran’s borders. The assaults have further accentuated the tensions in the region even as there is a growing danger that a broader sectarian conflict could worsen. In the past six years, Iran has deployed senior military advisers and thousands of volunteers to help regional ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle an armed insurrection that includes the Islamic State and other Islamist fighters, as well as groups supported by Turkey and the United States. Yet Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have blamed Saudi Arabia for these attacks.
The attacks came a day after West Asia experienced the sharpest crisis in the history of the Gulf Cooperation Council since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, joined by Egypt and others – decided to cut off ties to Qatar in a bold, high-stakes move to alter its behaviour. Not only have they closed their borders to Qatari aircraft and ships, they have said that Qatari citizens in their countries must leave within two weeks. By restricting not only diplomatic relations, but the flow of goods and people, their actions are aimed at exerting maximum pressure on the peninsula state’s leadership.
Led by Saudi Arabia, these states are sending a message that unless countries play by the rules set by the regional hegemon, the House of Saud, they would find it difficult in the region. Qatar has often challenged the supremacy of the Saudis. Its independent wealth from a gas field the country shares with Iran allowed it to develop foreign policies that diverged from its neighbours. It financed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and armed factions opposed by the Emiratis and Saudis in Libya and Syria. Of course, the government in Qatar’s capital city Doha dismissed the charges of sponsoring extremism, and said that the Saudis are just seeking to dominate the region.
For now, Kuwait is trying to mediate this showdown between the fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members. But it is likely that its end-game might be to displace Qatar’s leadership. The latest episode in Qatar’s torturous relationship with its Gulf Cooperation Council allies originated when the official Qatar News Agency quoted the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as saying in an address during a graduation ceremony for new army recruits that Doha faced tensions with the Donald Trump administration in the US and acknowledged that Iran is an “Islamic power”. This is now being termed as fake news by Qatar.
As is his wont, President Trump has since endorsed the Saudi view via Twitter adding that he discussed the “funding of radical ideology” during his recent visit to West Asia. The Gulf leaders he met with were all “pointing to Qatar”, he said. Washington will be concerned as there are over 10,000 US military personnel at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar, which boasts of the Gulf region’s largest airfield and is a critical hub for the war in Iraq and Syria. The US officials are insisting that their operations will not be impacted by the diplomatic incident, and activities at the base will continue as normal. But in these murky times, all bets are off. Perhaps recognising this, the US President moderated his initial stance, by talking to both Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan and calling for unity among Gulf Arabs “but never at the expense of eliminating funding for radical extremism or defeating terrorism”.
Qatar the outlier
This is also not the first time that Qatar has emerged as an outlier. Saudi Arabia had withdrawn its ambassador to Doha from 2002 to 2008 to try to pressure Qatar to toe the Saudi line. Differences broke into the open in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors out of Doha because of disputes over Iran, the 2013 military coup in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But then matters were resolved quickly. And the US was trying to play the role of a mediator. This time around, Washington itself is instigating this break-up. Trump’s hard-line against Iran has emboldened Iran’s regional adversaries to strike when the iron is hot.
With Iran under attack by the Islamic State and the regional rifts widening in West Asia, other countries, including India, will have to tread carefully. China’s Belt and Road Initiative will be in jeopardy if regional politics in West Asia remains conflictual and its long term energy interests will suffer. Being the second-largest buyer of Qatari liquefied natural gas, after Japan, and with more than 650,000 Indians living in Qatar, New Delhi’s stakes in the stability of Qatar are equally compelling. But the leverage that these powers have over regional matters remains fairly limited. In the end, the regional stakeholders will have to themselves find a modus vivendi if they want to escape broader costs of escalation. But that is a hope, and West Asian politics has a way of defying hopes that remains unmatched.
Harsh V Pant is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.