An April 28 report by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick reveals previously unknown details about massive Qatari payments to Iran-backed Shi’ite and Sunni jihadist militias last spring. The funds totaled at least $275 million according to Warrick, and possibly more than $770 million according to recent New York Times reporting by Robert Worth which Warrick credits. The monies served to free 25 Qatari hostages, including nine royals, who had been held for 16 months by an Iran-backed Shi’ite militia in Iraq.
The Post and Times articles also lend credence to a prior Financial Times story indicating that the payments served a further purpose: lubricating an intended population transfer deal between Sunnis and Shi’ites in four embattled Syrian towns. The Times asserts that Qatar attempted to facilitate the latter deal, which had been initiated by Iran in order to consolidate Iranian and Hezbollah control over territories near Damascus.
Viewed together, the range of alleged Qatari cash beneficiaries include at least four entities designated by the U.S. Government as sponsors of international terrorism: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, and Syria’s al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
The same Washington Post report also revealed a source of Warrick’s findings: extensive surveillance of Qatari phone calls, text messages, and e-mails by an unnamed foreign government. The surveillance was carried out over the 18 months leading-up to a June 2017 decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to sever relations with Qatar and impose trade and travel bans because of alleged Qatari support for terrorists and their enablers. The fact that an unnamed government was privy to the minutiae and magnitude of Qatar’s suspected terror-related dealings may help contextualize the Arab quartet’s dramatic measures that June.
In the coming days, Western government and policy institutions will probably have to grapple with the implications of Warrick’s reporting and the two stories that preceded it. Three possible conclusions have special relevance:
- Qatari officials may have been caught in a lie. On March 28, Qatar’s Ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Meshal Bin Hamad Al Thani, wrote in reaction to Robert Worth’s New York Times story that “Qatar did not pay a ransom.” He dismissed claims that Qatar supported terror groups as “false.” He also tried to characterize the Qatari payments in Iraq as a form of government aid, aiming to “strengthen bilateral relations” as much as facilitate the hostages’ release. But now the Post’s Warrick has heard, seen, and authenticated Qatari communications that seem to negate the ambassador’s claims.
- While some alleged Qatari support for terrorists may be a deliberate strategic choice, in other cases it may arise as much from sheer recklessness. Previous analysis noted that some Western diplomats, in taking stock of Qatari ransom payments to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, suspected that the “ransoms” were more a means of providing aid to the terrorists under a plausible ruse. Though the reporting by Warrick and Worth does not contradict this hypothesis en toto, it provides examples in which Qatari officials were not operating as methodically as the Western diplomats implied. “It seems as if the Qataris were less villains than dupes,” writes Robert Worth in his New York Times article, “drunk on natural-gas money and blind to its fatal consequences. They threw cash around in clumsy efforts to manipulate the politics of a volatile region, only to find the tables turned.” A government “in over its head,” apparently expending vast energy profits on armed groups amid regional conflagration, is in some ways more dangerous than a government acting coherently and effectively, however wrong-headed its policies might be. In the latter case, it might be possible for outside powers to foster a change in Qatari policy through a combination of pressure and incentives. But if as Worth suggests the Qatari leadership is simply “drunk on natural-gas money,” then the only safe remedy, to follow Worth’s analogy, may be to take away the keys.
- It could be argued that Qatari funds helped the Tehran regime preserve its power and policies. In light of the magnitude of alleged Qatari payments to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies, Doha appears to have provided a lifeline to Tehran’s interventionist policies at a time when the Iranian economy had been reeling from the effect of international sanctions. That is, the injection of Qatari capital provided a boon to the IRGC as Iranian domestic pressure had been mounting to cut support for its foreign adventures. Beginning on December 28, 2017, demonstrations across Iran saw millions of economically marginalized citizens – those most exposed to the country’s economic deterioration – demand an end to government funding of IRGC affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza. The Tehran government managed to quell these protests through a combination of repression and financial relief, while at the same time maintaining its interventionist policies in the surrounding region. Had Doha not handed Iran and its proxies the massive alleged payments, perhaps the Mullahs would have been that much more constrained in their attempt to continue both fighting wars abroad and ruling Iran.
*Joseph Braude is an author, broadcaster, and Middle East specialist.