Qatari spoiler role in Syria draws Iranian ire

Mar 25, 2013 12:00 AM

CAMBRIDGE, Massachussetts - In a development that is bound to raise Iran's anger toward the tiny oil state of Qatar, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatibi, the head of Syrian opposition, has announced his resignation, citing attempts by Qatar and other governments to buy and "control" the movement. Khatibi met Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister in Munich recently and favors dialogue with Damascus.

Khatibi's resignation on Sunday, prompted by his objection to the choice of Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-American high-tech executive, as the interim prime minister, has been welcomed by the US-government, which is looking to install a puppet "Free Syria" enclave in northern Syria in the coming months without being hampered by political dialogue between the Syrian opposition and Damascus that is favored by Khatibi as well as the UN's Special Envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. According to a French television report, Qatar has been trying to impose Hitto, who is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. [1]

Although Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia, may be junior partners in the US plan of action for regime change in Syria, its spoiler role vis-a-vis political reconciliation and an immediate end to mass suffering in the war-torn Syria is bound to have negative ramifications for hitherto cordial Iran-Qatar relations. If Qatar persists with this pattern of complicity with the US's designs on Syria, then the entire gamut of diplomatic, economic, and even energy ties between Iran and Qatar may experience jolts previously unfathomed by the Qatari leaders in Doha.

Doha "should be careful how it plays its cards in Syria because Tehran's patience is not unlimited," said a Tehran University political science professor who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity. In fact, there is a growing sentiment in Tehran that behind Doha's vigorous push for regime change in Damascus - reflected in last November's founding of a revamped Syrian opposition under the rubric of National Coalition - there is not simply an Arabist sympathy for freedom and democracy in Syria, but rather a complex web of political, sectarian, strategic and even economic (energy) considerations.

Concerning the latter, a Qatari-induced quagmire in Syria adversely affects the fate of the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline project that was inked in July 2011 and has since been held in limbo, mainly due to the growing troubles inside Syria. Both this project and the Iran-Pakistan pipeline are vehemently opposed by the US government, which has imposed severe sanctions on Iran's energy sector. In light of their shared energy field in Persian Gulf, Iran and Qatar have a delicate, complex, and part cooperative and part-competitive energy connection with each other.

Although both countries are members of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), this does not mean that Tehran and Doha see eye to eye on all gas issues. For example, Iran's oil minister recently declared that the "era of cheap gas is over" and, yet, news from Qatar indicates that it is selling gas to Pakistan and a number of other Asian "emerging markets" at reduced prices. According to the Qatari newspaper Peninsula, in 2012 Qatar substantially increased its gas exports and "has benefited from selling gas at long-term contracted values indexed to the price of crude oil."


Qatar and Iran's competitive streaks

"Qatar should stop complicating Iran's regional diplomacy because if it does not then sooner or later a consensus emerges in Iran that Doha is exploiting the sanctions on Iran and the pipeline insecurity for the Iran-Syria project," said the Tehran professor.

There is already considerable unhappiness in Iran that Qatar is about to end its moratorium on offshore developments in the South Pars/North Field next year and thus accelerate further its exploitation of the common energy field to Iran's disadvantage, particularly since the cash-strapped Iranians require a minimum investment of US$50 billion in order to upgrade their extractions from their side of this field, as per a statement from Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi.

"Iran will likely extract as much natural gas from the South Pars gas field as Qatar by March 2014 if the necessary budget of $53 billion is provided," Qasemi was quoted by the semi-official Mehr News Agency as saying in September, 2012. That is a big "if" however given the sanctions-imposed budget shortfalls being experienced by the Iranian government nowadays.

Absent a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of Western sanctions on Iran's energy sector, one key ramification may appear in the intensification of the competitive side of Iran-Qatar relations, particularly if countries such as India and China end up reducing their energy dependency on Iran and look to Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to make up for the loss of Iranian energy. This is already happening to some extent, in light of the recent offshore agreement between Qatar and PetroChina, which has acquired 40% of the exploration and production rights to an energy bloc adjacent to the common South Pars/North Field.

Despite Iran's recent prioritization of development of South Pars, because foreign firms have significantly decreased their commercial activity in Iran's energy sector, Qatar is likely to distance itself even further from Iran in oil/gas extractions from the common field (that is basically a homogenous entity). Presently, Qatar extracts some 450,000 barrels per day from oil fields shared with Iran, while Iran extracts none. There are rumors in Iran that "Qatar's cumulative production from the field is several times higher than Iran and Qasemi has given a ratio of 9 to 1 for other countries' use of shared fields," says the Tehran professor.

Such rumors may be exaggerated, but in today's climate of growing Iranian disquiet about Qatar's role in the region, they are bound to impact the government's handling of delicate relations with Qatar, which has played intermediary between Tehran and Washington in the past.

Home to the US's Central Command, Doha also falls within the military calculations of an Iranian response to any US attack on its nuclear installations, given Iran's counter-strategy of "extended deterrence" (see Afrasiabi, How Iran will fight back, Asia Times Online, December 16, 2004).

In a worst case scenario, with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falling to the US-GCC-backed opposition and stiff sanctions weakening Iran, Tehran may be apt to ask Qatar to self-impose a major restriction on its exploitation of the shared field. Neither Tehran nor Doha want to see their relations deteriorate, yet Tehran may soon conclude that such stern reactions may be the only way to stop Qatar from continuing with its destructive role vis-a-vis Syria.

1.See here

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press)

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