Teheran terror attacks pour gas on Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran and Qatar

A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 7, 2017 shows him (centre) delivering a speech to Iranian students in the capital Tehran.
A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on June 7, 2017 shows him (centre) delivering a speech to Iranian students in the capital Tehran. PHOTO: AFP

DOHA, Qatar (NYTIMES) - If the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISSI) did carry out the twin terrorist attacks on Wednesday (June 7) in Iran, as the militant group claims, it struck at an opportune time to further the cause of chaos.

Iran rushed to blame Saudi Arabia, its chief rival in a contest for power playing out in proxy wars in at least two other countries in the region, Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, however, seemed too preoccupied to respond. Its state-run news media was dominated by criticism of its neighbour and ostensible ally, Qatar, after the Saudis and other Arab allies cut off ties to Qatar as part of a different struggle for power within the Persian Gulf.

The attacks in Teheran threatened to escalate the broader regional conflict between the two heavyweight powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, at a time when the Western-allied gulf bloc is divided against itself.

And Saudi Arabia, under the two-year-old reign of King Salman and his powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is demonstrating an unexpected willingness to plunge into risky multifront battles.

Turkey has long been a partner to the gulf monarchs in their proxy war against Iran in Syria. But in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday, parliament voted to authorize sending troops to Turkey's base in Qatar - presumably to help defend against the Saudis.

What's more, the Saudis may actually risk driving Qatar - the world's largest producer of natural gas, and home to the largest US air base in the region - even closer to Iran.

Teheran has eagerly offered to provide Qatar with food and other supplies to make up for a closing of the vital overland shipping routes from Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has so far rebuffed the Iranian offer, saying it prefers to rely on supplies delivered by air from Turkey. But Qatari diplomats have also quietly stepped up dialogue with their Iranian counterparts, officials close to the Qatari foreign minister say.

"This is just a problem no one needs," said Michael Stephens, a researcher in London at the Royal United Services Institute.

It adds a new dimension to the raging conflicts between Western-allied Arab states and Iranian proxies in Syria and Yemen, Stephens said, and in Iraq between clients on both sides of the Saudi-Iranian conflict. It is a contrary result for Saudis, since they had justified their moves against Qatar in part by faulting it for dealing with Iran at all.

"It is best for British national interests and for American national interests if the Persian Gulf states were united," he said. "So this is really not a helpful time."

ISIS corroborated its claim for the Teheran attacks with a video that appeared to come from the scene. Iran, however, continued to blame Saudi Arabia and, as an accessory, President Donald Trump.

"This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US president and the backward leaders who support terrorists," said Iran's military arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, using its customary terminology, "backward leaders," for Saudi Arabia, in a statement trumpeted across the Iranian news media.

There is little truth to the frequent Iranian assertion that ISIS is an arm of the Saudi government. The militant group has attacked Riyadh, the Saudi capital, several times, while this strike would be its first on Teheran.

But the attack on Wednesday, and the Iranian response, are likely to further inflame the kind of sectarian tensions that ISIS thrives on.

While both the Islamic State and the Saudi monarchy follow similarly puritanical Sunni Muslim theology, the Iranian government is a Shi'ite theocracy. The proxy struggles between the two regional powers have played out along sectarian lines in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia had already stepped up its rhetorical attacks on Iran as a new rationale for its existing feud with Qatar. Just two hours before the Tehran attack on Wednesday, Saudi news organizations were reporting that the kingdom's foreign minister was renewing calls to punish Iran for destabilizing the region, just as other Persian Gulf neighbors had begun retaliating against Qatar.

The roots of the Saudi-Qatari rivalry, however, have little to do with Iran. Rather, they stem from decades of tensions between Saudi Arabia, as the giant of the Arabian Peninsula, and Qatar's desire for autonomy.

Members of the Qatari royal family, the Thanis, believe that in 1995 Saudi Arabia helped engineer a coup attempt in Doha. The emir at the time had recently carried out a coup against his own father, and the Qataris, who arrested several Saudi citizens in connection with the later coup attempt, believe that the Saudis were plotting to restore the father.

In the aftermath, Qatar gradually adopted the policy that its officials and analysts refer to as hedging. While embracing the overarching alliance with Washington and Riyadh, Doha has also opened relations with opposing players in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Taleban and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement.

Although Qatar's ties with Iran were never as close as those of its Persian Gulf neighbor Oman, Doha has felt obliged to maintain relations with Iran in part because the two countries share a natural gas field.

But diplomats and analysts on both sides of the Qatari-Saudi feud say that the current tensions arise less from differences over Iran than from opposite bets on the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. Saudi Arabia and its allies - most notably the United Arab Emirates - backed the preservation or restoration of the old order; Qatar and its Pan-Arab satellite network, Al-Jazeera, threw their weight behind the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The conflict came to a head in 2013 in Egypt, where Qatar backed the Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood who had won parliamentary and presidential elections in previous years. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backed the street protests and military takeover that overturned those elections.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt temporarily broke diplomatic relations with Qatar over its willingness to harbor Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members and provide them with favorable news coverage. The two sides settled their dispute that year, and Qatar agreed to close an Egyptian affiliate of Al-Jazeera known for its sympathetic coverage of the Brotherhood.

But Saudi Arabia and the Emirates grew increasingly frustrated that Qatar did not live up to the spirit of the reconciliation. Doha remains hospitable to Islamist exiles, and Al-Jazeera's coverage remains sharply critical of Saudi and Emirati clients in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

"Qatar did not follow through, and this irritated the Saudis," said Islam Hassan, a researcher in Persian Gulf politics at Georgetown University's campus in Doha. But Qatar, he said, is still determined to chart an independent foreign policy because the monarchy believes that "a way of regime survival here is to have recognition on the regional and international level."

Now, while the Iranians are busy blaming Saudi Arabia for the Tehran attack, Doha is considering accusing Saudi Arabia of, in effect, favoring Iran over Qatar by closing the border.

The final weeks of Ramadan are about to begin, a time when many Muslims make a pilgrimage to holy sites in Saudi Arabia. An official of Qatar's Al-Jazeera network said it might broadcast footage of Qatari pilgrims stranded at the closed border, juxtaposed with images of Iranian Shi'ites traveling freely to Mecca.

The combination of the attack in Tehran with the split among the gulf monarchies "is another layer of fissure and confrontation in the region," said Randa Slim, a veteran of informal diplomacy in the region and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, in Washington.

The result, she said, would benefit only the forces of mayhem, like the Sunni militants of ISIS or the Shi'ite militants of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq.

"It will create opportunities for groups like ISIS, or for Kataib Hezbollah on the other side of the aisle, to do things at the behest of their sponsors," she said, adding chaos "to a region that is already volatile."