BY DENNIS B. ROSS, The Hill
Unrest in Iran has dominated news coming out of the Middle East for nearly two weeks. It is a big story, with protests spreading to nearly 80 cities.
Iran looked less to be the behemoth whose reach could not be stopped in the region, and more a country whose long-term stability might well be in question. The focus on Iran won’t lessen this week, as President Trumpmust again respond to legislation that requires him to certify that the Iranians are not in material breach of their obligations in the JCPOA, the nuclear deal, and that it is in the national security interests of the United States. While he is once again certain not to certify the deal, it remains to be seen whether he will walk away from it.
If Trump seizes on the unrest and demonstrations as a pretext to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions, he will do so alone: The Europeans have made clear that they will continue to abide by the deal — especially because Iran is fulfilling its obligations under its terms. There is room for the president to impose new non-nuclear sanctions and gain European support for them, particularly if they understand this may keep the U.S. in the JCPOA.
Preserving coalitions for dealing with the Iranian challenge in the region will remain important. The costs of Iran’s adventurism in the region have produced a backlash among the Iranian public; this is the moment in which demonstrating that Iran is alone internationally becomes more important than ever. It sharpens the contradictions within Iran and compels the leadership to think harder about whether it can continue to invest so heavily in Syria, Hezbollah and the other Shiite militias, the Houthis, Hamas and Islamic jihad. Our policy should be designed to raise those costs — something that can be done without walking away from the JCPOA.
But that surely requires keeping the Europeans on board and ending the fissures among the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The break between the Saudis, the Emirates and Bahrainis on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, is damaging the effort to counter Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region — and not only in the sense that it allows the Iranians to exploit the differences, as it is doing by cozying up to the Qataris and providing alternatives on trade and commerce to what is now blocked with the Saudis et al. In another, more profound sense, the Iranians are using Shiite militias to try to fill the vacuum in areas where ISIS has been defeated in Syria and Iraq. Should they continue to impose a sectarian, exclusionary approach, one that oppresses Sunnis and denies them rights, they will recreate the conditions that produced ISIS in the first place.
To avoid the “son of ISIS” from re-emerging in these areas, with all that may mean for us, the Trump administration must marshal the resources from the states to help provide for local reconstruction, security and governance. Local populations and forces can do more to resist the Iranian/Shiite militia push, provided they receive tangible support. But the divisions among the Gulf Cooperation Council not only make that more difficult, they create a distraction from the central challenges in the region — whether it is Iranian expansionism or the danger of ISIS re-emerging in a different guise.
Even though the United States maintains a large, highly sophisticated air base in Qatar, al Udeid, and the Qataris largely pay for it, we should not be neutral in this imbroglio. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a national transformation project in which we have a high stake in its success. And whatever Saudi clerics may have done in the past, they are no longer spreading an intolerant, violent ideology that justifies terror against non-believers.
One cannot say that about Qatar; from hosting the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Hamas to financing jihadi groups in Syria and Libya, Qatar belies its commitment to fighting terror. Moreover, it has subsidized al Jazeera, which has provided a continuing platform for extremist beliefs and arguments. Yusuf al Qaradawi, an Islamic theologian and spiritual guide to the Muslim Brotherhood, remains in Qatar and for a long time had a weekly show on al Jazeera. While he meted out advice on how to live an Islamic life on many mundane day-to-day issues, he also called for attacking U.S. forces and civilians in Iraq, killing Jews and justifying suicide bombings in Israel, as well as rationalizing second-class status and mistreatment of women.
Qaradawi, who is 91, no longer has a show on al Jazeera. But the network continues to incite more than inform.
Consider last summer, when the Israelis put metal detectors on the Haram al Sharif after two of its border guards were killed by guns smuggled into the holy site in Jerusalem. Al Jazeera reporter Nasseba Moussa did more than just report about Palestinian protests and violence in response: She encouraged these Palestinian responses, going so far as seemingly trying to shame more Palestinians into rioting by saying that at least those who are challenging the Israelis have “dignity.” And when the Israelis removed the metal detectors, al Jazeera gave extensive coverage to Ismael Haniya, the leader of Hamas, who spoke of the great victory that had forced the Israelis to retreat on this issue. He proceeded to call on young children, women and men to keep resisting the occupation forces, and proclaimed it “an honor” for them to fight against the IDF.
More recently, in response to Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, an article appeared on the al Jazeera website titled, “How did Trump Reach to the Point of Destroying al Aqsa.” In the article, Trump and Israel are accused of wanting to destroy the al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia are described as their enablers — and the only possible savior was Hamas. There can be no better example of something completely untrue and designed only to incite passions.
So what should be done? First, it is true that we depend on the al Udeid air base, but it cannot be a get-out-of-jail-free card for Qatar; this must be communicated to the Emir. Second, we should identify what we consider to be most important in terms of changing unacceptable Qatari behaviors. This does not mean accepting everything that the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians may demand, but it does mean making certain that Qatar no longer plays a double-sided game of supporting us in practical ways — especially with the al Udeid base — while continuing to provide financial support and a platform for legitimating radical Islamist ideology.
Specifically, we need to see that fundraising for terror networks is completely eliminated in Qatar. In this connection, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on counterterror financing that the State Department recently concluded with Qatar needs to be fully implemented. Congress might adopt legislation that requires reporting from the State Department on measures taken that show Qatar is acting on its obligations. Beyond implementing the MOU, we should make clear to Qatar that anyone who the U.S. has designated as supporting or facilitating terror will not have refuge or sanctuary in Qatar; similarly, any group that the U.S. identifies as conducting terror will not receive financial support from Qatar — and, here, legislation adopted for reporting on the MOU might be written so as to include reporting on how Qatar is fulfilling these requirements.
Lastly, al Jazeera is, unmistakably a challenge. The U.S. government should not be in the business of censoring broadcast networks, even ones like al Jazeera that too often seek to mobilize attitudes rather than inform their viewers. But while we should not aim to shut down al Jazeera, there is no justification for Qatar continuing to subsidize it. The Qatari government should be asked to phase out its financial support. If al Jazeera is truly credible as a network, it should be able to get the private financing and sell commercial time to sustain itself.
Given the challenges in the Middle East, the Trump administration needs partners. Working with the Europeans and our Arab friends is essential if we are to counter destabilizing Iranian activities and guard against the emergence of a radical ISIS successor. Managing the JCPOA on one hand, and ending the impasse involving the boycott of Qatar on the other, offer a basis on which to achieve our critical goals in the region.
Former Ambassador Dennis B. Ross served as special assistant to President Barack Obama, is a co-founder of United Against Nuclear Iran and is the William Davidson Distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.