Middle East politics just witnessed two contrasting events. In Riyadh on Monday, there was a meeting of Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) defense ministers. The previous day, in Tehran, came a trilateral “commercial” deal signed by Iran, Turkey and Qatar.
The IMCTC spectacle outstripped the modest event in Tehran in terms of sheer pomp and media publicity. Yet it is the latter that needs to be watched closely.
The new military alliance has been hastily called the “Arab NATO,” but it is neither quite Arab nor an alliance. Its steel frame is provided by Pakistan, but Pakistanis themselves are racially akin to north Indians.
The real North Atlantic Treaty Organization came into being on a solid geopolitical and ideological platform and provided the cutting edge to the West’s containment strategy vis a vis the USSR. But the IMCTC’s threat perception is over a protean, non-state phenomenon that mutates within the Muslim world itself. Saudi Arabia is widely reputed to be the principal incubator of “Islamic terrorists” historically, but its current predicament is that the birds are coming home to roost.
An economy in great distress, with foreign exchange reserves fast depleting; a vicious succession struggle that is tearing the royal family apart; signs of resentment in a deeply conservative religious establishment that traditionally lent legitimacy to rulers; deep-rooted social tensions producing demands for “reform” and opening up; seething unrest in Shi’ite oil-rich eastern provinces. Saudi soil is fertile for radical Islamists.
Equally, there’s a complicated external environment: Shi’ite empowerment in Iraq; a quagmire in Yemen; defeat in Syria; loss of Lebanon to Hezbollah; a “post-sanctions” Iranian surge; volatility in the oil market; and American unwillingness to prop up the Saudi regime in any domestic upheaval.
Saudi Arabia doesn’t face the threat of external aggression. Therefore, how useful is the IMCTC in warding off an enemy that slouches within Saudi Arabia itself? Again, will IMCTC countries go to war with Iran to re-establish Saudi pre-eminence in the Muslim Middle East?
Most IMCTC countries – drawn from distant lands in the Maghreb, Africa or Central Asia – maintain friendly relations with Iran. (Even Pakistan seems eager to turn a new leaf with Iran.)
Simply put, the IMCTC is the latest manifestation of the Saudi approach of throwing money at a problem to shoo it away. But the crisis today is existential, and the IMCTC gives a false sense of security. Monday’s photo-op in Riyadh called to mind the Shah of Iran’s festivities in 1971 showcasing the 2,500th Year of the Foundation of the Imperial State of Iran in Persepolis, even as the enemy was knocking at the gates.
By contrast, the Iran-Turkey-Qatar deal struck in Tehran on Sunday was a low-key event, but the substance of it is guaranteed to impact regional and international security.
The agreement, signed by three obscure commerce ministers who do not make headlines in western media, provides for the creation of a “joint working group to facilitate the transit of goods between the three countries” to tackle “obstacles to sending goods from Iran and Turkey to Qatar.”
This may seem a modest effort at streamlining the logistics of trade flow to Qatar, which can no longer access the land route via Saudi Arabia. But it is hugely symbolic – signifying Doha’s strategic defiance of Saudi regional leadership, and open support from Ankara and Tehran. Doha’s dalliance with Tehran was ostensibly the initial reason behind Saudi wrath, but Qatar and Iran are now flaunting a veritable alliance. It undermines Gulf Cooperation Council cohesion, since Iran also enjoys cordial ties with Oman and Kuwait.
On a broader plane, the deepening three-way entente between Russia, Turkey and Iran, against a backdrop of their shared antipathy toward the US, already provides a firewall for Tehran from regional isolation. And Iran’s kinship with Qatar and Turkey, two Sunni Muslim countries, debunks the campaign by Riyadh to give sectarian coloring to its rift with Tehran.
The Qatar-Iran proximity has profound implications for global energy markets. Russia, Iran and Qatar account for around 55% of the world’s proven gas reserves. The three countries are leading players within the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. Besides, Iran “shares” the South Pars gas fields (accounting for 27% of Iranian reserves) with Qatar, and Russia is, of course, deepening its presence in Iran’s energy sector.
Qatar has dominated the LNG markets since the 2000s. But Russia is bolstering its LNG production with the establishment of the Yamal field facility (expected to be fully functional by 2020) and Iran, too, is eyeing a future as an LNG exporter.
US President Donald Trump is set to expand US LNG production, but, to be sure, the world LNG market is getting crowded. A quasi-alliance between Russia, Iran and Qatar can therefore seriously derail Trump’s best-laid plans for American LNG exports.
This also adds to US sensitivities about its 6500-plus troops currently stationed in Qatar, which hosts the regional headquarters of US Central Command, at Al-Udeid Airbase. There are, likewise, gathering storms in US-Turkey relations. Turkey has a military base in Qatar, too.
Meanwhile, a giant new port opened in Qatar in September that becomes a gateway for Iran, just across the waterway, to boost trade, even as Fifa’s 2022 Qatar World Cup draws ever closer. Iran, moreover, is offering its airspace to reroute Qatar Airways flights to Europe and the Americas.
Iran hopes to attract Qatari investments. There is even talk of listing Iranian government debt, such as treasury bonds, on the Qatar Stock Exchange someday. Suffice to say, in geopolitical terms, the budding alliance with Qatar provides Iran with much strategic depth.
Iran has a history of outwitting the Saudis through a mix of brainpower and guile, projected through diplomacy, and that seems to be repeating. Fundamentally, though, the Turkey-Iran-Qatar alliance resets the balance of forces in the Muslim Middle East by openly challenging Saudi Arabia’s leadership role.