This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Katherine Ahn contributed from Washington.
Qatar’s emir has used his visit to Washington this week to highlight his nation’s growing economic and defense ties with the United States, but has said nothing about his apparent bid to mediate U.S.-Iran tensions.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday and Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Pentagon a day earlier, with both sides praising what they called “increasingly close” strategic and defense relations. They cited Qatari purchases of and agreements to buy U.S.-made aircraft, jet engines and missile defense systems, the joint development of a Qatari petrochemicals complex and Qatar’s expansion of the Al Udeid Airbase hosting U.S. forces.
But the U.S. readouts of Al Thani’s meetings with Trump and Esper made no explicit mention of Iran, whose long-running tensions with Washington have soared in recent months. Neither did Trump nor Al Thani say anything about a Qatari desire to mediate between the United States and Iran, as the two leaders spoke to reporters ahead of their White House talks.
Qatar not only serves as a U.S. ally by hosting the U.S. military’s Central Command forward headquarters at the Al Udeid Airbase, but it also serves as Shi’ite-majority Iran’s best friend among Sunni-led Gulf Arab nations that have largely shunned Tehran in retaliation for its support of anti-Sunni insurgencies in the region. Doha has boosted its economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran since 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar for its perceived support of terrorism and advocacy of improved ties with Iran.
In a report published Tuesday, Qatari news agency Al Jazeera, founded by the emirate’s ruling family, quoted Qatar University politics professor Majed al Ansari as saying Doha is “actively working in mediation between Iran and the United States.” Al Ansari, a former Qatari foreign ministry official, also described that mediation as likely to be a “main topic” of Al Thani’s meetings with U.S. officials in Washington.
In a Tuesday press briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said U.S.-Qatari cooperation in dealing with what she called Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region would be on the agenda of Al Thani’s meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday.
But some analysts say Al Thani faces multiple obstacles in any effort to mediate U.S.-Iran tensions that have escalated since last year, when Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal in which world powers offered Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on its nuclear program.
Trump reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran and called on it to negotiate a new deal, saying the existing one did not do enough to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons or engaging in other malign behaviors, such as developing ballistic missiles and supporting U.S.-designated terrorist groups.
Tehran has called its nuclear ambitions peaceful and vowed to continue those behaviors. It also claimed responsibility for downing a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf last month, while denying U.S. accusations that it attacked six foreign oil tankers in the region with mines since May.
“I expect Iran to be the thorniest of all the issues that the emir and Trump discuss,” said Varsha Koduvayur, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a VOA Persian interview.
“Unlike Oman or Kuwait, two Gulf Cooperation Council countries that have officially declared themselves to be neutral, Qatar sent its ambassador back to Tehran in 2017, shortly after the Gulf blockade began, and trade with Iran is just continuing to rise. In my view, this doesn't put Qatar in any sort of neutral, mediating light,” she said.
Speaking separately to VOA Persian, Matthew Brodsky, a senior analyst at the Security Studies Group in Washington, said he believes the Trump administration is not interested in any foreign mediation of U.S. tensions with Iran at the present time.
“The point of the (U.S.) strategy is to create the maximum amount of tension so that the leaders in Tehran reach a decision point (that) would lead them to the table to negotiate over not just their nuclear program but their ballistic missiles and of course their very bad regional behavior,” Brodsky said. “So a lessening of the tension … plays against the White House strategy to bring the leaders in Iran to a decision point, and that requires tension,” he added.
Iranian intransigence is another barrier to mediation, in the view of James Phillips, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“I doubt that Qatar could play a significant role in easing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, because Iran does not want tensions to be eased right now,” Phillip said in another VOA Persian interview. “As long as Tehran wants to continue escalating this slow-motion crisis, I doubt third party efforts will make much of a difference. But if Iran should change its mind, there may be an opening for such a role,” he said.