NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The Justice Department ordered a digital news network based in the United States and owned by Al-Jazeera, the media company controlled by the royal family of Qatar, to register as a foreign agent, surprising a high-level delegation from Doha just as officials from the two nations met to strengthen diplomatic and economic alliances.
Al-Jazeera suggested the move was part of a separate deal, signed on Tuesday (Sept 15) and brokered by the Trump administration, in which the United Arab Emirates, a Qatari rival, normalised diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Emirates ambassador to the United States said that was not true.
In a letter dated Monday that was obtained by The New York Times, the Justice Department said that AJ+, a network that primarily produces short videos for social media in English as well as Arabic, French and Spanish, engages in "political activities" on behalf of Qatar's government and should therefore be subject to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Qatar, the letter said, provides the network's funding and appoints its board of directors.
"Journalism designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation's activities or its leadership qualifies as 'political activities' under the statutory definition," said the letter, which was signed by Mr Jay Bratt, the chief of the Justice Department's counterintelligence division, "even," the letter added, "if it views itself as 'balanced.'"
Mother Jones first reported the letter Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, Al-Jazeera Media Network, AJ+'s parent organisation, insisted that AJ+ was independent and therefore should not have to register as a foreign agent, and that it was "considering our options."
Al-Jazeera also suggested that the move was related to the UAE's historic agreement to become just the third Arab-led country to normalise relations with Israel.
"The UAE has confirmed it presented the United States with preconditions prior to announcing the Abraham Accords, and we received DOJ's letter the day before the UAE signed the Accords," said Al-Jazeera's statement, referring to the agreement signed Tuesday at the White House.
"Hobbling Al-Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the UAE's blockade against Qatar and the Justice Department just gave the UAE what it wanted."
The Emirates' ambassador to the United States, Mr Yousef al-Otaiba, denied that the UAE had pushed for the registration as part of the deal to warm relations with Israel.
"At no point in our discussions was Al-Jazeera or even Qatar raised," Mr al-Otaiba said in an email to The Times.
He added, of Al-Jazeera, "they're really not as important as they think they are."
Qatar and the UAE, neighbours on the Persian Gulf, have been embroiled in a bitter geopolitical rivalry for several years.
Three years ago, the UAE imposed a blockade on the small country along with regional allies Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Among the UAE's complaints with Qatar's government is its funding of Al-Jazeera, whose primary, Arabic-language television network was sympathetic to protesters in the region during the Arab Spring of 2011.
A media consultant for the Embassy of Qatar in Washington declined to comment. But an official with knowledge of the matter said the administration's order surprised Qatari diplomats who learned of it though news reports on Tuesday.
Mr Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to confirm the letter's existence but said, referring to the group responsible for enforcing the foreign agents law, "Fara Unit's enforcement activities are based on following the facts where they lead and the applicable law."
The letter was sent to AJ+ on the same day that Qatar's deputy prime minister and top diplomat, Mr Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, met with top Trump administration officials for an annual strategic dialogue between the two countries.
As part of the talks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo endorsed efforts for a "2021 Qatar Year of Culture" that will promote cultural exchanges with the United States.
"Our partnership has grown beyond just defense and economics into one of true friendship and community between our people and our two countries," Mr Pompeo said Monday, at the start of the bilateral discussion.
The talks themselves focused on a range of issues on which the two countries agreed to cooperate, including counterterrorism and military, health issues, investments and enhancing civil society. The blockade against Qatar was also among the discussions, Mr Pompeo said.
"The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar's air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf States," Mr Pompeo said. "I look forward to progress on this issue."
Ahead of the talks, Qatar's ambassador to Washington, Mr Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, praised diplomatic relations with the United States.
"I think the US finds in Qatar a very reliable partner," Mr al-Thani told a small group of journalists in a meeting on Friday.
Two years ago, after several lawmakers called for Al-Jazeera itself to be designated a foreign agent, Ms Andrea Edney, then the president of the National Press Club, said in a statement that "it would be wrong and counterproductive to censor a news organisation whose work has won wide praise from the international journalism community."
On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump nominated Lieuteant General Eric Wendt to be his next ambassador to Qatar.
Lt Gen Wendt is currently commander of Nato's Special Operations headquarters and it is likely he will be asked about the AJ+ designation as the Senate considers his confirmation. From 2017 to 2019, he served as the State Department's security coordinator for Israel and Palestinian territories.