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Qatar's emir travels to Iran to push for nuclear deal

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani meets Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to bring Washington and Tehran closer to each other
Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani

PHOTO/AFP  -   Ayatollah Ali Khomenei in a meeting with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Tehran on 12 January 2020

After a year of intense negotiations, the revival of the Iran nuclear deal has entered a terminal phase due to fundamental differences between Washington and Tehran. A large majority of the diplomats involved in the talks had lost all hope of reaching a deal. But Qatar has stepped in at the last minute to turn the tables. The emirate wants to see the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed and implemented to calm the waters in a turbulent regional context.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, travelled to Iran on Thursday at the invitation of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi with the main objective of pushing forward the negotiations in Vienna and sealing the nuclear agreement. Accompanied by a cohort of advisers, Tamim Al Thani was received by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Mokhber at the capital's Mehrabad airport at around 13:00 local time (08:30 GMT), according to images released by the Persian media.

Once on the ground, the Iranian authorities transferred Tamim Al Thani to the vast Saadabad complex, built during the reign of the Kajar and Pahlavi dynasties, located north of Tehran and annexed to the presidential residence. Raisi had prepared an official reception there that preceded the face-to-face meeting between the two leaders. The Iranian press described the meeting as an opportunity to deepen diplomatic and commercial ties between the two sides, who are close regional allies.

But the emir's visit is part of Doha's efforts to push the nuclear deal forward. According to analysts, Tamim Al Thani seeks to act as a valid interlocutor between Washington and Tehran. For Al-Monitor columnist Ali Hashem, Qatar has "a real interest" in building bridges between two countries with which it has good relations. The problem is that the gap between the US and Iran is difficult to bridge. Hashem acknowledges that we do not yet know what Doha has in store.

The Qatari emir's visit also coincided with a trip to Tehran by the deputy secretary general of the European Union's External Action Service, Enrique Mora, who acts as a moderator in the nuclear negotiations. Invited by the Persian authorities, Mora, a profile close to the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrel, held a meeting on Wednesday with the chief negotiator of the Iranian delegation in Vienna, Ali Baqeri Kani, to bring positions closer together, with little success.

The Qatari emir, for his part, listened to Iranian demands during the meeting with Raisi, from the most conservative wing of the regime, related to the unfreezing of its assets, the exchange of prisoners and cooperation in the energy sector, beyond regional issues, according to the state news agency IRNA. Tehran has also made public its interest in taking advantage of the opportunity to make its resort island of Kish available for tourists attending the World Cup in Qatar, scheduled for late 2022.

After the meeting with the Iranian president, Tamim Al Thani spoke for a few minutes with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the same room where the Persian head of state received Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier in the week. At the end of the meeting, the Qatari emir held a joint press conference with President Raisi, stating that "Qatar has a positive view towards the Vienna talks and we believe that dialogue is the solution to the issue. Differences in the region can only be resolved through constructive talks.

Doha wants to defuse tensions in the region, led by Israel and Iran, and take advantage of the turbulent global energy scenario, conditioned by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, to establish itself as a substitute for Russian reserves in the eyes of the West. To this end, the emirate wants to take advantage of its fluid bilateral relations with the United States and its proximity to the Islamic Republic and bring positions closer together in Vienna.

The sticking point preventing the resumption of the JCPOA for the time being remains the status of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces that is considered a "terrorist organisation" by the United States. Tehran wants to see part of its army removed from this list, a diplomatic affront that also brings with it the imposition of sanctions. Washington, for its part, claims that this issue is a "red line" outside the terms of the nuclear deal. 

"We are, God willing, pushing all parties to reach an agreement that is fair for all," said the Qatari emir. Unlike some of its neighbours, the tiny Gulf country has a differential trump card, and that is that it maintains a preferential relationship with Tehran, so its role as intermediary between the parties could be crucial in order to reach an agreement 'in extremis'. However, the scenario seems increasingly complicated.