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Trump Is Ending One Gulf Conflict to Start Another

The Trump administration's sudden U-turn on Qatar is all about Iran.

Donald Trump and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In a series of tweets on the morning of June 6, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump accused the government of Qatar of funding extremism. It was a coup for the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, who had imposed a blockade on the Qataris the day before, after years of reproaching them for supporting the subversive and muckraking Al Jazeera broadcaster, and allegedly assisting extremist groups in the region.

As the stalemate dragged on for months, Trump seemed content to let it play out. Sure, there were several phone calls between the president and Gulf leaders during which Trump asked them to repair their ties, but the issue was hardly a priority for the White House.

Now Trump is back to intervening — but only to make an apparent U-turn. Instead of hammering the Qataris as he did last June, the president just sent his newly confirmed secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to the Middle East, where he read the Saudis the riot act. Pompeo told Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to fix the problem with Qataris. Enough is apparently enough.

What changed? The Trump administration realized its relationship with Iran is coming to a head, and it wants a unified Gulf Cooperation Council on its side. Trump’s change of tone on Qatar almost certainly means he has made up his mind to bust the Iran nuclear deal in the coming weeks.

Ironically, the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian-Bahraini blockade had become, in the interim, the new regional reality, with Qatar using its considerable financial wherewithal to tread water. It has set up its own dairy industry, adjusted Qatar Airways’ flight patterns, deepened its ties with Turkey, and accepted shipments of food from Iran, especially in the early days of the blockade. The emir has also used the fact that not everyone in the region was on board with the four countries’ program to his own diplomatic advantage.

The blockading nations, for their part, once they understood the Qataris would not knuckle under and accede to 13 demands they had laid out as a condition for ending the blockade, shifted to working toward Doha’s long-term isolation in the region. The conflict has thus settled into a pattern of each side indulging in various degrees of trolling via fake news, strategic leaks, and hacks to embarrass the other. At times the level of pettiness has barely approached middle school levels. Etihad Airways has, for example, removed the word “Qatar” from its moving map program; meanwhile, the repeated public dumps of the Emirati ambassador’s emails have taken on a vendetta quality.

But the dispute has always had the potential to spread well beyond the Gulf. All the major players, plus Turkey, are active in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. The Qataris and Turks recently upgraded their military ties with Sudan, unnerving the Egyptians, which has raised the stakes in ongoing disputes between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the distribution of Nile waters and other territorial issues. And there are undertones of the conflict playing out in both Libya and Tunisia, where the blockading countries and Qatar have backed opposing parties.

The conflict has also played out inside the Beltway, where the Qataris and Saudis have spent lavishly to sway policymakers, members of Congress, and think tanks. These armies of lobbyists and consultants have not produced much for their clients. The general consensus in Washington is pretty much where it was 11 months ago: “None of these allies are perfect, and the Qataris are definitely not angels, but they do have some unique relationships that are useful, and, well, Al Udeid airbase is extremely valuable to us.”

Still, the four nations blockading Qatar were pleased with the appointment of Pompeo as secretary of state. In Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, officials had come to regard Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, as part of the problem. They believed that rather than turning the screws on Emir Tamim bin Hamad, Tillerson was shielding the Qataris from the wrath of a president who had campaigned on getting tough on terrorists, their financiers, and the Iranians. Sure, the Qataris signed a series of counterterrorism and security agreements with the United States in February, and Trump had a positive visit with the emir at the White House in April, but with Pompeo at Foggy Bottom, things were going to get real for the Qataris.

Except that clearly, they haven’t.

Still, most of the obvious explanations for the White House’s shift in the conflict in the Gulf — maybe the Qataris have shaped up, maybe their lobbying has paid off, maybe Washington realized the Qataris were the good guys all along — seem a bit too neat. Why, for example, would lobbying work now, but not in the past? None of it adds up, especially after Trump removed H.R. McMaster as national security advisor and replaced him with John Bolton and moved Pompeo from CIA to State. Neither of them has given a second thought to uttering the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” and both have called for designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. This should align them closely with the blockading countries in their beef with Qatar.

Pompeo’s demand that the Gulf nations settle their differences only makes sense against the backdrop of May 12, the date that the president needs to either waive sanctions on Iran or reapply them, essentially withdrawing the United States from the Iran deal.

Washington’s biggest worry about the blockade, especially early on, was how the rift within the region would affect the ability of the United States and its allies confront Iran. This was not because tiny Qatar was a central player in the confrontation — the Qataris have always had a nuanced view of Iran, regarding it as a problem to be managed rather than rolled back — but rather because instability on the western shores of the Gulf would provide opportunity for Tehran to make more mischief on the Arabian Peninsula by doing what the Iranians have often done in response to trouble in the Arab world: exploit it to advance their influence.

This threat turned out to be theoretical. The Iranians haven’t been any more emboldened because of the Qatar spat. But it’s easy to imagine that changing if Washington withdraws from the nuclear deal and reimposes sanctions on Tehran. The administration clearly wants a unified Gulf to mitigate any potentially destabilizing fallout. It seems unlikely that Iranian soldiers will try to come ashore on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, but there is the significant potential for Iranian sabotage (remember Khobar Towers?) and information warfare intended to confuse and frighten the Gulf states. It would be better if those countries themselves weren’t engaged in the same kind of activity against each other, because it would just provide further opportunity for Tehran and its agents.

It is true that Trump often likes to feint and zigzag in the run-up to important decisions, but there has been significantly less of such nonsense ahead of Iran deal waiver day. The shift on Qatar is another sign that Trump is going to spike the deal. It came after both Pompeo’s suggestion in Brussels that he did not think the president would stay in in the deal and French President Emmanuel Macron’s failure — despite every form of flattery and self-abnegation — to get a commitment from Trump to maintain and strengthen the agreement.

The Qataris are out of the penalty box because of Trump’s determination to make good on his promise to walk away from the Iran deal. That may be a relief to some, but given what is likely to come next, the emir might regret it.

About the Author

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, was published in June.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, was published in June.

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