Recently, there have been significant developments in the conflict/rivalry between, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni axis that it established, and on the other hand Iran and the resistance axis. These developments concern not only the forces in the region but also the U.S. and Russia. Both these camps are vying for support from the U.S., which at this stage is striving for understandings and negotiations with Iran and, according to Iranian sources, is already conducting secret contacts with it; this is happening as the U.S. is, for now, coming to terms with Iran’s expansion in the region. These developments are impacting the reshaping of the Middle East as well as the power relations among the leading elements within it. The current Qatar crisis is a new manifestation of the generational geo-political Sunni-Shi’ite Saudi-Iranian struggle, and is the outcome of the policy of a U.S. administration in which two political camps are discernible. One is that of President Trump and his close advisors, who support Saudi Arabia and the Sunni axis, and the other is that of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who are showing sympathy for Qatar and acting to preserve the pro-Iran status quo of the Obama era.
This paper will review these developments and their ramifications:
Recent Developments In The Saudi Arabia-Iran Power Struggle
Since President Donald Trump took office, there have been several main developments:
- A Saudi initiative to form a bloc of Sunni states against Iran, under Saudi leadership, at the May 20-21 Riyadh summit, along with an unsuccessful attempt to enlist the U.S. for this move. This followed the years of the Obama administration’s support for Iran and attempts to force Saudi Arabia into “balanced relations” with Shi’ite Iran, and to accept Iran’s regional expansion as part of that country’s “exporting” of its Islamic revolution.
- An Iranian diplomatic counter-move aimed at negotiating with the U.S. for the lifting of the remaining sanctions (concerning terrorism and human rights violations). It should be noted that it appears, from statements by Iranian officials, that secret negotiations are already underway between the Trump administration and Iran (see details below). There are also other indications of this. For example:
- On February 28, 2017, Majlis National Security Committee member Javad Karimi Qadousi revealed that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with four requests: that the U.S. administration not act to cancel the JCPOA; that the “U.S. State Department appoint a special representative for JCPOA affairs” and that former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry be named to this post because he had good and clear relations with the Iranian negotiating team; that a secret bilateral channel of Iran-U.S. communications be opened; and that a secret meeting be held in Istanbul.
- Mahmoud Nabavian, a former Majlis member from the ideological camp who was secretary of the special committee for examining the JCPOA and a member of the election headquarters of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who ran against President Hassan Rohani in the May 2017 presidential election, revealed on May 29, 2017 that the U.S. had made the implementation of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) and holding banking relations with Iran conditional upon handing over Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and many other generals to the U.S., and that Foreign Minister Zarif had even committed to doing so in his contacts with the Americans.Nabavian’s leak of this information is supported by the fact that several Iranian officials have recently expressed the view that the U.S. must back down from its demands relating to the IRGC. For example, the regime mouthpiece Kayhan newspaper explained in its June 28, 2017 editorial that “the West wants to send a message to the government and the people of Iran that ‘if you want to benefit from a relationship with the world and not encounter new threats, you must distance yourselves from the IRGC.’ The previous week, on June 20, 2017, it threatened that if the U.S. acted to have the IRGC designated a terrorist organization, and harmed its IRGC’s economic capabilities with sanctions, the region would not be secure for either the U.S. or its allies: “The [June 18, 2017] IRCG missile attack [in Syria] sends an explicit message to America and its allies in Europe and the region that if the region is not safe for Iranian economic and commercial activity [i.e. by means of the IRGC], there will be no reason and no logic that the region should be safe for the clear enemies of Iran – the Westerners, the Arabs, and the Hebrews – and it is clear that this price of insecurity must be forced also on Iran’s enemies.”Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezai, a former IRGC commander, clarified that America is facing a “demand that it agree to the IRGC’s defending the honor of the Iranian people, and [therefore] it is not possible to level sanctions against it. It is not worthwhile for [the Americans] to choose it [as a target] in order to show its strength against it because the result will lead [the U.S.] to regret [doing so].” At the same time, Iranian officials stressed the IRGC’s role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) as an additional reason why the U.S. must back down from its intentions against it.
- Asked on May 29, 2017 about Tillerson’s conversation with Zarif, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi replied: “There is still no plan and decision on this, but you need to pay attention to the fact that diplomacy is very broad and that anything can happen one of these days.”
- On June 25, 2017, Kayhan explained to the Rohani government that “the message of the IRGC missiles has been clearly received [by the West and therefore] there is no need for them [i.e. the Rohani government] to sit at the negotiating table [with the Americans] in fear and for them to worry about the lifting of the tension. The hope is that from now on they will rely on the might of the [Iranian] armed forces and will come to every negotiating table with increased strength.”[6
- The early June 2017 joint Saudi-Gulf Arab move (together with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) and other Sunni countries to isolate Qatar. For why the Qatar crisis happened when it did, see below.
A double Iranian military move, on land and with missiles, in the Syria and Iraq arenas:
The land move – called a “strategic move” by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and directed by Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani – mobilized Iran-controlled Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria to the Iraq-Syria border, creating territorial continuity under Iranian control stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. This came at the same time as the Americans were pushed to the Al–Tanaf region, where they are essentially surrounded. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1320, Resistance Axis Forces Directly Threaten U.S.: We Are On The Brink Of War On Syria-Iraq Border; The U.S. Will Pay Dearly If It Acts Against Us In Syria, June 14, 2017.
Why Did The Qatar Crisis Happen When It Did?
It should be clarified that the Saudi initiatives – the creation of a Sunni anti-Iran camp and isolating Qatar – have been presented as aimed primarily at fighting terrorism, not as against Iran’s expansion in the region. However, the concluding statement of the Riyadh summit devoted a special section, Section 3, to Iran. It stated:
“The leaders of the countries absolutely reject the Iranian regime’s operations that are undermining the security and stability of the region and of the world, and condemn the Iranian regime’s ongoing support for terrorism and extremism. Likewise, the leaders rejected the hostile positions of the Iranian regime and its ongoing interference in the internal affairs of the countries of the region, in gross violation of international law and of the [principles] of good neighborly relations and stressed their commitment to oppose this activity by Iran. The leaders undertake to step up their efforts to safeguard the security of the region and of the world, and to determinedly tackle the destructive activity of Iran, within their countries and by means of joint coordination. The leaders stressed the danger inherent in Iran’s ballistic missile program and its ongoing violation of the  Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”
Likewise, the Sunni camp presented Qatar with a list of demands, including that it “curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. and international sanctions will be permitted.”
The U.S.’s Ongoing Disregard Of Qatar’s Activity To Radicalize The Muslim World And Encourage Terrorism
The Saudi-Sunni move against Qatar exposed, primarily, the U.S., which had for years ignored Qatar’s subversive anti-U.S. activity. MEMRI has been monitoring Qatar’s activity for years via its state television channel, Al-Jazeera, and has accumulated a great deal of information exposing Qatar’s activity for radicalizing the Arab and Muslim world, and its support for a wide range of terrorist organizations in the region and in the West. This information will be presented in a separate paper.
By way of example, we will mention here a television program broadcast on July 10, 2001, two months before 9/11, of praise and encouragement for Osama bin Laden, including his anti-U.S. activity, and openly inciting the Arab world to leverage bin Laden’s activity against the U.S. and the West. As will be recalled, it was Qatar’s Al-Jazeera that was the platform for bin Laden’s messages and speeches to the Muslim world (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 319, Terror in America (30) Retrospective: A bin Laden Special on Al-Jazeera Two Months Before September 11, December 24, 2001; see also original program in Arabic, Bin Laden, the Arab Despair, and the American Fear, July 10, 2001).
An Al-Jazeera correspondent, Tayseer ‘Alouni, a dual Spanish-Syrian citizen, was even, in 2004, sentenced to seven years in prison in Spain for serving as a money courier for Al-Qaeda. He covered the war in Afghanistan from 2001 onwards, interviewing bin Laden in October 2001. ‘Alouni was sent to prison in 2005 but from 2006 served his sentence in house arrest because of poor health; he was released early in 2012 and returned to Qatar (see, for example, MEMRI TV Clip No. 869, Al-Qaeda’s Internet News Broadcast Expresses Solidarity with Al-Jazeera Reporter Tayseer ‘Alouni Who Was Sentenced to Seven Years in Jail by a “Crusader Infidel Spanish Court”, September 28, 2005, and Alouni’s interview with the commander of the Al-Qaeda splinter group Jabhat Al-Nusra, MEMRI TV Clip No 4089, In Wide-Ranging Interview, Jabhat Al-Nusra Commander Al-Joulani Discusses Jihad in Syria, Declares: Our Conflict with ISIS Has Been Resolved, January 1, 2014).
Another example is the birthday party thrown by Al-Jazeera for Lebanese Hizbullah terrorist Samir Al-Quntar, following his release from an Israeli prison. Al-Quntar had murdered members of a family, including a little girl, in Nahariya, Israel in 1979. The party included a giant cake, a band, and fireworks (see MEMRI TV Clip No. 1818, Al-Jazeera TV Throws A Birthday Party For Released Lebanese Terrorist Samir Al-Quntar , July 18, 2008).
Developments In Iran-U.S. Relations
Even in May 2017, on the eve of the Iranian presidential election, the Iranians could discern that the actual positions of the U.S. administration towards them did not match its anti-Iran statements. For example, during April 2017, the administration supported the JCPOA in the concluding statement of the G7 talks in Italy, delayed Senate legislation against Iran, and more (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1314, Iran Tests The Trump Administration, May 8, 2017).
It should be noted that in contrast to the widespread perception in U.S. Republican circles that although the Trump administration had come to terms with the existence of the JCPOA it would focus its efforts against Iran’s regional expansion, the truth is that the administration has capitulated, for now, in this matter as well. It has also surrendered to the May 2017 Russia-Iran demand to involve Iranian forces in Syria as “guarantors” in the Russian plan to create four De-Escalation Zones in Syria, constituting legitimization of Iran’s expansion (see Iran Tests The Trump Administration).
Recently, U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the coalition, said from Baghdad that the U.S. has “absolutely no problem” with the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Russia fighting extremists in the desert region of eastern Syria. This statement means that the U.S. has come to terms with and legitimized Iran’s military expansion in Syria.
Also with regard to the Yemen issue, the U.S. has clarified, via Secretary of Defense James Mattis during his April 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia, that the dispute in Yemen must be resolved in the U.N. – which is the Iranian position on this issue.
These signs encouraged the Iranian regime to announce during the month of May, and particularly after the Riyadh summit, its willingness to launch negotiations with the Trump administration. President Rohani said, in a May 12, 2017 television debate in advance of his reelection: “I declare that I am willing to remove, in a good way and powerfully, in addition to the nuclear sanctions that we removed during the four [years of my presidency], also the rest of the sanctions, and that we will restore the honor of the Iranian people and the interests of Iran.”
On May 21, as the Riyadh summit was underway, Foreign Minister Zarif noted, in an interview with the London daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, Iran’s willingness to negotiate with the U.S., provided that it worked against Saudi Arabia. He said: “Iran is completely willing to cooperate with the regional and extra-regional powers [i.e. the U.S.] in the matter of fighting terrorism and extremism and restoring peace and quiet in Syria.”
On May 22, President Rohani told a press conference marking his election victory: “With regard to the rest of the sanctions, if the Iranian nation demands it, and if we arrive at a national consensus in all the regime apparatuses, and if the Leader [Ali Khamenei] will take it upon himself to guide this matter, we will all follow the leader and carry it out. This is hard work but doable.”
Although the Qatar crisis has created the impression of an internal Saudi-Qatari crisis in the Sunni camp, this is a misapprehension, because the conflict in the entire Sunni camp concerns Iran and its resistance axis.
Iran has created, in its statements about its wishes in the negotiations, a strategic deception vis-à-vis the U.S., allowing the U.S. to believe that it will be able to achieve its objectives via negotiations and diplomacy. In this way, Iran is causing the U.S. administration to hesitate in deciding how to react to Iran’s expansion in the region.
The U.S.-Iran dialogue will continue via both diplomatic messages and military moves aimed at reinforcing these messages. The American bombing in Syria or Iran’s firing of missiles should not be understood as if the U.S. and Iran are seeking a military confrontation. On the contrary: Both sides are using these military moves as a means to apply pressure, as part of a larger move of bilateral negotiations.
Iran has pushed the U.S. into a difficult dilemma: whether to become entangled in a war against Iran and against the resistance axis that is backed by Russia, or to continue negotiating with Iran, while coming to terms with the JCPOA and as Iran continues its violent expansion across the Middle East. As clarified on June 14, 2017 by Khamenei’s top advisor Yahyah Rahim Safavi, “if America wants to start a war against Iran, all its military bases in the region will become insecure, and Iran can cover a distance of up to 2,000 km from its borders with its missiles.” It should be clarified that at this stage, the U.S. is also not prepared militarily for a fight on the ground with Russia-backed Iranian forces. There have been reports about expected U.S. reinforcements and intensive espionage operations in Syria, but U.S. policy itself has not yet become clear.
It can be assumed that in this conflict, the more determined side (Iran) will achieve its objectives and defeat the side that is less interested in the conflict (the U.S.). This is also as the U.S.’s allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, know that they cannot trust it, because the U.S. is apparently turned towards reaching understandings with Iran, and not towards clashing with it.
At this stage, the American administration is not willing to pay the price of changing the situation that it inherited from the previous administration, and it prefers to disregard not only Qatar’s role in encouraging Islamist radicalization and terrorism, but also the situation in Syria and Yemen, the fact that Iraq is an Iranian proxy, and Iran’s establishing itself as a global nuclear and missile power.
In this reality, in which the U.S. prefers not to confront Iran, which is supported by Russia, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Sunni world and Israel will have to bear the burden of confronting the Shi’ite-Iranian challenge in the region on their own. The Qatar crisis is a cautious first step by the Saudi-Sunni camp in its activity against Iran and the resistance axis, and it requires all the elements, headed by the U.S., to reveal whether or not they are committed to the Sunni anti-Iran camp. In such a situation, further rapprochement can be expected between Saudi Arabia/the Sunni camp and Israel.
Full article: At This Stage, The Trump Administration Consents To Iran’s Regional Expansion, Exchanges Messages Seeking An Understanding With Iran; Qatar Crisis, Escalation Of Conflict Between Iran And Its Axis And Saudi-Sunni Camp Are Outcome Of U.S.’s Incoherent Dual Policy (MEMRI)