U.S. Hopes a Small Step in Easing a Mideast Rivalry Could Further Rattle Iran’s Economy

News Analysis

U.S. Hopes a Small Step in Easing a Mideast Rivalry Could Further Rattle Iran’s Economy

The Trump administration wants Saudi Arabia to open its airspace to Qatari flights that are currently paying millions of dollars to route over Iran.

Credit…Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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  • Dec. 2, 2020, 3:42 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — In one of its final attempts at Middle East diplomacy, the Trump administration is pushing for an agreement that would ease a blockade against Qatar. But the mission may be more about delivering a last blow to Iran’s economy before President Trump leaves office.

Meeting on Wednesday with Qatari leaders, Jared Kushner, a senior presidential adviser, and other White House officials raised the prospect of rerouting commercial flights from the Persian Gulf country through Saudi Arabia’s airspace instead of over Iran, according to a diplomat with knowledge of the discussions.

That would reopen a flight path that the state airline, Qatar Airways, followed for years before it was cut off by the Saudi kingdom and at least three of its neighboring nations with an air, land and sea embargo against Qatar in 2017.

It would also starve Iran of what diplomats described as an estimated $100 million in annual fees that Qatar has paid to fly through its airspace — money that is nourishing Iran’s battered economy and, according to officials, allows Tehran’s leaders to more easily finance military programs that the Trump administration views as a threat.

Two U.S. officials also described a goal of Mr. Kushner’s diplomatic foray this week — which included a stop in Saudi Arabia — as seeking an agreement on the overflights issue.

It was not clear if Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in the region, the United Arab Emirates, would similarly open its airspace to Qatar. One diplomat noted that Mr. Kushner’s delegation did not stop in the Emirates, signaling doubt that the country was ready for a step toward a reconciliation with Qatar.

The three-year dispute among the Arab states, which also pits Egypt and Bahrain against Qatar, is of significant concern to the United States — and not just because it is caught between regional allies on whom Americans rely for oil, military bases and, under Mr. Trump, better relations with Israel.

It has also fragmented the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran in the Middle East and the world beyond.

The embargo, which began in June 2017, sought to punish Qatar for what the four other Arab nations called its support for terrorism. The four have since created a list of demands for Qatar to meet before the embargo will be lifted, including shutting down the news network Al Jazeera and abandoning ties with Islamist organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

In an interview in September, the Qatari ambassador to the United States described an open channel of communication between Qatar and Iran “to sit together and resolve the differences.”

The ambassador, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, noted concerns about Iran’s nuclear and missile program. But, he said, “we think the best approach is to have a dialogue and negotiate with some agreement.”

Just two weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also traveled to Qatar to make what one official called his own pitch for the overflights issue to the government in the capital, Doha.

In a meeting with Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, Mr. Pompeo “discussed the need for working together to confront threats to stability in the region, and the importance of overcoming divisions within the gulf to further counter Iran’s malign influence,” according to a State Department statement.

The White House declined to comment on Wednesday about Mr. Kushner’s meetings in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. His traveling delegation included Brian Hook, the State Department’s recently departed chief Iran envoy; Avi Berkowitz, a special representative for international negotiations; and Adam Boehler, the head of the International Development Finance Corporation.

Economic and low-level diplomatic relations between Iran and Qatar have been underway for years, and are among the grievances that the other Arab states have lodged against the oil-rich monarchy in Doha.

The Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said in an interview on Tuesday that “there is no justification for a permanent break” with Qatar. But he repeated deep-seated suspicions about the government in Doha, in part over what he described as its support for extremists.

“There is no fate-changing or existential disagreement between us and Qatar,” Mr. al-Mouallimi told RT Arabic. “We are one people and one country, and the Qatari brothers are an extension of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an extension of them.”

For a while, it seemed that Mr. Trump would side against Qatar.

As recently as last year, he considered naming the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization; the Islamist movement has renounced violence but has links to some extremist groups. It also has some ties to Qatar’s government, which is aligned with Islamist organizations that are modeled on the Brotherhood.

But given other American strategic priorities — including a U.S. military air base at Al Udeid, southwest of Doha, and Qatar’s hosting of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban — the Trump administration gradually decided to mediate a way to reunite Qatar with its regional detractors.

The more important fight, it seemed, was against Iran.

Since 2018, when Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from an accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program, his administration has imposed punishing economic sanctions against Tehran and denied it an estimated $70 billion in oil revenues. That has contributed to what Mr. Pompeo described last month as a 25 percent cut in Iran’s military budget last year.

Mr. Pompeo, who has taken the toughest line against Iran among Mr. Trump’s advisers, has long insisted that Tehran’s income goes not to benefit the Iranian people, but to fund its missile programs and proxy militias it is backing in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Easing pressure on Iran’s economy — which the Qatari overflight fees have helped to do — would be what Mr. Pompeo called “a dangerous choice, bound to weaken new partnerships for peace in the region and strengthen only the Islamic Republic.”

An agreement to reroute Qatar’s airlines would give the Trump administration one last kick at Iran. In terms of brokering a way out of the blockade, however, it would amount to only a glancing blow at the festering impasse among the Arab states.

If Saudi Arabia allows Qatari flights through its airspace, that “would clearly be a win for Doha,” said Barbara A. Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.A.E. and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But if that is all the administration can deliver on the blockade, it should not be considered a major diplomatic feat. In fact, Ms. Leaf said, it would be an ironic signal of just how divided the Arab states remain “on either the details or even the desirability of reconciling with Qatar.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut.

Source Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/world/middleeast/qatar-iran-saudi-arabia-kushner-overflights.html

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