Region in flames
We are all confused by the successive crises in the Middle East. With not even 24 hours having passed since the Qatar-Gulf crisis, ISIL’s double terrorist attacks in Iran fell like a bombshell. As Iran’s Revolutionary Guard blamed Saudi Arabia for the deadly attacks, these two crises became intertwined. The question now is just how they are inter-connected and where they will lead.
The reason behind the assumption that the two crises are interrelated and the claim that Saudi Arabia is behind the attacks is that the Saudis have long been upset with Qatar’s relations with Iran. This was also the main cause of the Gulf’s recent blockade on Qatar.
However, before reaching the conclusion that Saudi Arabia was the perpetrator, we need to remember that Tehran had announced exactly one month ago that it had foiled an attack planned by ISIL. Although the latest one was ISIL’s first attack on Iran, apparently many others were previously prevented.
What’s more, there are intelligence reports that ISIL has recruited thousands of Sunni Iranians, especially ones repressed by the regime (indeed, all the ISIL terrorists in the Tehran attacks have been identified as Iranians). More importantly, the fact that ISIL conducted this attack within the Iranian Parliament indicates that it had been in the making for a long time, as it required the coordination and strong support of an internal network.
ISIL is about to lose its main capitals, Raqqa and Mosul. It is therefore trying to give the message both to its base and to the world that it is unbowed and still strong. This is why one ISIL militant was shouting “you cannot defeat us!” while broadcasting the Iranian Parliament attack live online.
It is certainly possible that some power may have directed ISIL to conduct these attacks in Iran at this point, but that actor is not within our knowledge yet.
These attacks will probably further worsen the existing Shia-Sunni clash in the region. I spoke to Randa Slim, director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a long-term practitioner of Track II dialogue in the Middle East, who told me that “whenever these two elephants – Iran and Saudi Arabia - fight, the whole region suffers.”
Slim expects that this rising sectarian tension will extend the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria, where the Iranians and the Saudis have been engaged in a proxy war. This becomes even more certain when we take into account Trump’s strong support for the Saudis. The Iraqi war will also certainly linger. All in all, Saudi Arabia’s main target is to diminish Iran’s dominant role in Iraq and Syria. Yet Iran will certainly do its worst, considering that it is the actor most heavily invested in Iraq and Syria.
Another question is why the Saudis have targeted Qatar at this specific moment, after actually being furious over Qatar-Iran relations for a long time. What is new is that now the wind is picking up for the Saudis. Trump is reported to have recently signed a deal in Riyadh worth $350 billion. At the same time he defines the Islamist groups supported by Qatar such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists” and has also put Iran in the target. It is therefore seen as the right time to attack Qatar.
That is why the Gulf countries are now seeking to form a strongly united front against Iran, bringing the disconcerting Qatar “to reason.”
So where does the Qatar-Gulf crisis now go? Slim recalled to me that these countries have been in several crises in the past, which they have always somehow been able to overcome. “However,” she added, “this is the first time in history that Qatar has faced such a blockade,” referring to cutting off land, naval and air routes to the country. According to Slim, Qatar’s emir thus has to give “big” concessions this time if he wants to solve the crisis. These concessions include cutting off its relations with Iran and its support to Islamic groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It looks possible that he will take this path, as Qatar cannot economically survive under this heavy blockade. Its main revenue comes from its oil and gas reserves, export of which Doha has lost now due to the blockade on its access to the markets.
What if the Qatari emir does not give concessions? The possibility of a coup attempt may well then gain currency, as the media has for months been speculating about.
Considering the current bleak picture, we should pray that Kuwait’s ongoing mediation attempt between Qatar and Saudi Arabia bears some fruit.