By Professor Tridivesh Singh Maini
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Qatar was important for a number of reasons. It was the first visit to a Gulf country by Raisi, at a time when negotiations related to revival of the Iran Nuclear deal were going on, and days before Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine – on February 24, 2022. While addressing the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) Raisi criticized US sanctions but also said that Russia was willing to supply natural gas oil to Europe. The Iranian President’s visit also reiterated the growing strategic importance of Qatar.
Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi embarked upon a two day trip to Doha (February 21-22, 2022). In January 2022, Qatari Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during his meeting with Raisi, had handed an invitation from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the Iranian President to attend the GECF (Gas Exporting Countries Forum).
Raisi was accompanied by oil minister Javad Owji and foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on the trip. This was Raisi’s fourth international visit, ever since taking over as Iranian President in June 2021, and the first to a Gulf Country (it also happened to be the first by an Iranian President to Qatar in over a decade). In 2017, the reasons cited by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt for snapping diplomatic ties with Qatar was Doha’s cordial ties with Tehran, as well as support for certain Islamist groups (they were joined by Jordan). In January 2021, the four Arab countries restored diplomatic ties with Qatar.
During Raisi’s Qatar visit, a total of 14 agreements were signed during this includinged an agreement between Iran’s Tavanir (Iran’s Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution Management Company) and Qatar’s Electricity and Water Company, between the free trade authorities of both countries and an agreement to connect Iran and Qatar via an undersea tunnel. Apart from energy and shipping, agreements were signed in a number of areas; media and culture, diplomacy, education, sports, tourism, economy and trade fields. The Iranian President also proposed the setting up of an Iranian trade centre for making Qatari businessmen aware ofabout potential economic opportunities in Iran.
During his meeting with the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Raisi also discussed the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal and Afghanistan. In a joint press conference following his meeting with the Emir, Raisi said:
‘We also exchanged views on regional issues such as the fight against terrorism, the situation in Afghanistan, drug trafficking, and agreed that the fight against terrorism and its various forms is one of our priorities,’
Qatar on its part has played an important role as an intermediary not only in the negotiations, held in Doha, between the US and the Taliban in February 2020, but also in the context of the Iran Nuclear deal (the Qatari Emir, who visited the US in January 2022, discussed the Iran Nuclear deal during his meeting with US President Joe Biden)
Key points made by Raisi during his address at the GECF
The Iranian President, participated in the Sixth Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in Doha. While speaking at the GECF, the Iranian President spoke against West sanctions, and also said that Iran could supply energy to Europe. In recent weeks tensions between Russia and the West, over Ukraine, have disrupted the global oil market. Oil prices surpassed 100 $ after Russia’s invadedinvasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
The Iranian President’s Qatar visit was important for a number ofseveral reasons. Firstly, in terms of symbolism, it sent out a clear message that Iran accords a high priority to its ties with Qatar. Second, Raisi’s visit coincided with the escalation of tensions between the West and Russia over the Ukraine issue, while supporting Russia vis-à-vis the US on the Ukraine issue, Iran offered to supply oil to Europe if the need arises. This is a strong reiteration of the fact that Iran despitein spite of its Anti West posture is keen to have a balanced foreign policy.
Third, Qatar’s deft foreign policy it has managed to emerge as a trusted ally of the Biden Administration. During the Qatari Emir’s US visit, Qatar was declared a Non-Nato Ally, by the US due to its role in facilitating negotiations with the Taliban, reducing tensions between Israel and Palestine in June 2021, and evacuation of US citizens from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021. Qatar’s warm relationship with Washington has not impacted its ties with Iran and as a result, it has emerged as an important player as far as the Iran nuclear deal is concerned. Saudi Arabia was the most important player in the GCC (many analysts argue that along with Israel, Saudi Arabia had a disproportionate influence on Donald Trump’s Middle East policy) but Qatar has managed to upstage it in recent times.
While Saudi Arabia and UAE have also reoriented their foreign policy and are making attempts to improve ties with Iran, it remains to be seen if after Raisi’s Qatar visit they show greater urgency in improving ties with Iran.
In conclusion, the visit of Raisi may not have drawn much attention, but it is likely to have important ramifications in the context of the Middle East, and also reiterates the growing strategic clout of Qatar not just in the context of the Middle East, but globally.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana.
Image credits – Al Jazeera