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The Qatari Conundrum: A Saudi Message to Turkey and Iran

1 saudi-arabia-turkey copyPictured: Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is the eighth and current Emir of Qatar.

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

The Middle East has been ablaze for many years now, but the Islamic Republic of Iran has so far largely escaped any direct harm. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has also become the victim of numerous terror attacks over the past years… but now, the whole dynamic seems to have undergone a radical shift, a shift endangering Iran, Qatar, Syria, and Yemen… with potential ripple effects also touching upon Turkey and Russia.

All the while, the United States maintain a not-so hidden presence in the region that has the potential of even endangering the whole world…

1 Iran

The moment a bomb went off in Tehran at the Tomb of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, captured on CCTV (Image courtesy of Tasnim News)

Setting the Scene in Tehran

On Tuesday, 7 June 2017, the city of Tehran was rocked by  simultaneous terror attacks: a “multi-prong terrorist attack has struck Iran’s capital city this morning. Gunmen and suicide bombers converged on three targets including Iran’s Parliament building and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini, killing staff and members of the public.”

The Iranian security forces reacted decisively: “four gunmen have been killed in the exchange of gunfire,” as reported by the Tasnim News Agency. The attacks left 12 dead with at least 39 more injured. In the Guardian, Kareem Shaheen and Nadia Khomami suggest that the “Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on the highly symbolic sites, publishing a brief video that purported to show the assailants inside the parliament. If an ISIS role is confirmed, this would be the first attack conducted by the terror group inside Iran.” Shaheen and Khomani further explain that the Islamic State “published a rare video in Persian in March [2017], warning that it ‘will conquer Iran and restore it to the Sunni Muslim nation as it was before’, while accusing Iranians of persecuting Sunnis over the centuries.”

As a result, this unexpected outrage in Tehran seems to be part and parcel of what I have termed the Intra-Islamic Cold War, the ideological subset of the New Cold War between the West (U.S. and NATO) and the ‘unholy’ alliance between Russia and China.

This Sunni-Shi’a conflict pits Saudi Arabia squarely against Iran, the only Shi’ite power in the world, and also a thorn in the side of Israel and the U.S. As a result, it seems quite natural that the Saudis are on very good terms with the Jewish state – and even sharing in their efforts to bring about the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in the region. And the likelihood of the latter has all but greatly increased since the spectacular rise of Caliph Ibrahim and his Merry Men proclaiming an Islamic State in the summer of 2014, thereby upsetting the geographical status quo in place since the adoption of Sykes-Picot. The Islamic State made a first dent in the hitherto immutable borders, effectively redrawing the map of the Middle East and thereby giving the Kurds the opportunity to capitalise on future developments in regional map-making. The initial success booked by the Caliph and his cohorts all but benefited the Kurds who expanded their own territorial gains, with the siege and eventual liberation of the Syrian town of Kobane acting as a symbolic stage in the Kurds’ move towards statehood and independence. And ever since the WikiLeaks release of the Podesta e-mails, the world should now be fully aware of the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the main driving force behind any Caliphal progress in the region.

But, as such, the IS or ISIS/ISIL is not the only possible perpetrator of the Tehran attacks. The always knowledgeable roving reporter Pepe Escobar took to social media to suggest that the Caliph wasn’t to blame, stating at the time that “Daesh [using the Arabic acronym for ISIS] can’t pull off a simultaneous attack against the Parliament and Khomeini’s shrine in Tehran… but Mojahedin-e Khalgh’s (MEK) goons can.” Escobar is thus suggesting that the Iranian regime opponents whom the Obama administration demoted from the list of  ‘Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations’ on 28 September 2012 are the ones responsible for the outrage. But even this alteration would not really constitute that much of a difference, as Escobar adds because the “MEK is now funded by – how lovely – the House of Saud.” Either way, whether ISIS or MEK, the ultimate player pulling the strings appears to have been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed leaders of the Sunni world of Islam. The House of Saud arguably bases its claim not just on its underground hydrocarbon reserves and attendant Petrodollars but also on its status as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in Mecca and Medina respectively. In reality, though, this can only be described as somewhat ironic or otherwise awkward or odd, in view of the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia adheres to the so-called Wahabi school of thought, which advocates a purist interpretation of Islam, stripped of all post-Muhammadan additions and/or accretions. In fact, as I explained elsewhere in 2015, “Wahhabi believers regard all other Muslims, whether they adhere to the Sunni or the Shia line of the faith, as Mushrik or perpetrators of the sin of Shirk, meaning idolatry or polytheism. As a result, Wahhabi Islam relies on a strictly puritanical understanding of monotheism (Tawhid).” This means that the whole trope that I have termed the Intra-Islamic Cold War should not necessarily be seen as a rivalry to do with theological differences or other such supposedly otherworldly concerns, but rather as a very dirty game of Realpolitik, alliance-building or even mere commercial matters. On his Facebook account, Pepe Escobar quite insightfully adds that “this whole thing IS about oil vs. gas.”

And now, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have issued the following statement, published by Iranian media:

“This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the U.S. president [Donald J. Trump] and the backward leaders [of Saudi Arabia] who support terrorists. The fact that [the] Islamic State has claimed responsibility proves that they were involved in the brutal attack.”

Trump’s Inversion of ‘Radical Islamic Terror’

These ominous words now hover like a tangible threat over the region, but the Iranian leadership seems to have rightly read the events as having been set in motion by the 45th U.S. President, who has since enthusiastically tweeted that it was “[s]o good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard-line on funding,” apparently quite shamelessly claiming that he himself had urged the Saudis to sever ties with Qatar, obviously ignoring the role played by the Wahhabi Kingdom itself in the spread of “Radical Islamic” or “Islamist Terrorism” around the world and in the region. Trump tweeted furthermore that “all reference[s] were pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” As an individual devoid of intellectual curiosity or even the merest sliver of pertinent knowledge and/or information, President Trump’s words seem to make the situation only worse, with many players in the region fearing for the future. For instance, writing for Sputnik Türkiye, the Turkish journalist and writer Elif Sudagezer posits that “[t]his attack was a warning for Turkey, Iran, and Qatar issued by the USA for the purpose of establishing sovereignty in the Middle East.”

Sudagezer interviewed the Turkish terror specialist Abdullah Ağar, who told her that “[i]f Daesh [or IS/ISIS/ISIL] possesses the capacity to stage such a [brazen] attack in Tehran why has such an attack not taken place earlier [?]. One of the biggest enemies [faced by] Daesh are the Shi’ites and they have killed any Shi’a they have come across. So, why has such [an assault] not been realised earlier? This needs to be investigated. Moreover, yesterday, forces opposing the Mullah [regime in Iran] have made a call for armed insurrection and [an] uprising. It is telling that an attack has occurred in the wake of such a call. This organisation is Sunni in origin and in the south-west of Iran there are other such Sunni Arab-based structures… I can see a picture connecting these organisations.” In other words, Ağar seems to give weight to Escobar’s words blaming the regime opponents of the “Mojahedin-e Khalgh’s (MEK)” rather the Caliph and his Islamic State for the terror outrage in Tehran.

Elif Sudagezer also spoke to Rafet Aslantaş, the head of the ANKA Enstitüsü, an Ankara-based think tank. For starters, Aslantaş does not appear to give any credence to a possible MEK scenario, instead he sees “ISIS” as a “subcontracted” terror group in this instance. He stresses the “need” to “read this attack” correctly, as the attack “had the object of giving Iran a message,” before elucidating that “there exists a meaningful relationship between the USA trying to augment its power in the region and this attack aimed at Iran.” As such,  Aslantaş explains that the arms deal struck by Trump in Riyadh last May constitutes an “important roadmark” in this context. Taking a bit of a historical approach, he makes a comparison with Saddam Hussein, saying that “such an arms deal can have the effect of increasing the deterrence [possessed] by the country making the purchase, but can also give cause to the country [in question] living through a [veritable] power poisoning. The example of Saddam clearly illustrates this, because before [invading Iran] he had been supplied with [U.S.] arms.”

Persuasive though this reasoning may seem, the ANKA director seems to have forgotten that Saudi Arabia is at present bombing Yemen, an act of aggression that arguably has by now all but depleted the oil-rich state’s arms’ stocks.

“This whole thing IS about Oil vs Gas”

In spite of this apparent short-sightedness regarding the Saudi arms’ deal, in the next instance, Rafet Aslantaş, appears to hit the nail on the head: “the USA wants to increase its effectiveness in the Middle East. For that reason, it does not want to be left facing the duo of Iran and Qatar moving towards a cooperation regarding the topic of natural gas reserves.” Moving to the Syrian theatre, Aslantaş adds that “another event linked to the USA’s anti-Iranian policies was the targeting of forces operating in concert with the Syrian army in the vicinity of Al Tanf, Syria located in one of the safe zones established upon the initiative of Turkey, Iran, and Russia. These forces were Shi’ite militias. This shows that Iran [now] constitutes a [legitimate] target.” The security specialist then moves into more speculative territory, saying that “we are [now] witnessing in an obvious manner [how] the USA [is] attempting to dominate the Middle East by means of placing the centre of its policy in Saudi Arabia. In the near future, we might very well witness serious changes and confrontations that could [even] serve as the topics of Hollywood screenplays.”

iran-iraq-syria-pipelineCompeting Pipelines: Two proposed pipeline projects, via Qatar and Iran (Image: OilPrice.net)

In the end, though, Aslantaş concludes quite rightly that the U.S. has now entered the Intra-Islamic Cold War as a veritable participant: “the USA is trying to foment madhhab [sectarian] clashes and opposition to Iran. The USA is sort of trying to recoup from the regional countries the expenditures it has made by means of creating these conflicts through its interference in the Middle East since 2003,” adding that “Qatar became a target because of its unwillingness to [participate in this] refund.” In fact, Aslantaş even alludes to the projected construction of a pipeline to ship Qatari natural gas to (and through) Syria as one of the reasons behind the current conflict, Syria’s not-so civil war. He states that at that time, Qatar played a key role, but that, at present, the country has been left lingering between the “Western bloc led by the USA” and the “bloc focused on Russia.” In other words, the specialist posits that now the Intra-Islamic Cold War and the New Cold War have merged in the Middle East, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, with Syria and Qatar (as well as Yemen) caught in the middle.

AKP-led Turkey has a clear stake in the conflict next door, as I have alluded to many times in the past, Syria operates as a kind of testing ground for what I have termed Tayyip Erdoğan’s “policy of Sunnification.” At the same time, AKP-led Ankara has also established firm ties with Doha, establishing a military base in Qatar in 2016. Turkey’s President addressed a number of foreign ambassadors during an iftar dinner, where he commended Qatar for its “cool-headed and constructive” stance in the current crisis.

Apparently, moving on to what is nowadays known as “alternative facts,” Erdoğan even declared that the Gulf state is pursuing an “effective fight” against terror and terrorism. The next day, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Ankara following the Tehran attacks (7 June 2017), and had meetings with Turkey’s FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to discuss the stand-off. Both Turkey and Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood, and as a result, rumours are now even abounding about Turkey sending military aid to the Gulf, above and beyond the troops already stationed there. The Beirut-based independent journalist Paul Cochrane posited in 2015 that “Turkish-Qatari defence and military agreements go back nearly a decade. In 2007, Ankara and Doha signed a defence industry cooperation agreement, and in 2012, signed a military training agreement.”

All this indicates that AKP-led Turkey is now really caught between a rock and a hard place, and Tayyip Erdoğan’s next moves could very well have the potential of turning the whole region into a battlefield…  a battlefield that could set the world on fire and turn the New Cold War into a very hot conflict going forward.

***
Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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