Foreign Relations & International Law

Shuttle Diplomacy Falls Short in Gulf Crisis, Israel Concerned about Ceasefire in Syria, and Two Tenuous Years of the Iran Nuclear Deal

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 18, 2017, 10:30 AM

Emirati-backed Hackers Started Gulf Crisis, According to U.S. Intelligence

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Emirati-backed Hackers Started Gulf Crisis, According to U.S. Intelligence

The Gulf states’ deadline for Qatar to meet its demands passed almost two weeks ago, but a resolution to the crisis remains elusive. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stepped up his efforts to mediate between the Gulf states and Qatar. On a trip last week, he engaged in shuttle diplomacy and on Tuesday announced that the United States would deepen its counterterrorism cooperation with Doha after Qatari officials signed a memorandum committing to increased measures to combat terrorist financing. It’s the sort of move that could have been a valuable confidence-building measure—if the dispute truly was about terrorist financing, as the Gulf states have claimed. But the rift is about much more than that, and includes Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its strong relationship with Turkey and Iran, its promotion of media that does not toe the Gulf’s narrative—almost everything that has set Qatar’s foreign policy apart from the Gulf’s mainstream. When he left the region last Thursday, Tillerson said that “the parties are not even talking to one another at any level” and any “ultimate resolution may take quite a while.” On Monday, Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash threatened to push Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council in a speech at Chatham House.

Tillerson was also undercut by President Donald Trump. The day after Tillerson announced the U.S. commitment to work with Qatar on countering terrorist financing, President Trump again praised the Gulf’s isolation policy trageting Doha and suggested that it would not be difficult to pull U.S. troops from Qatar’s al-Udeid airbase. “If we ever had to leave, we would have 10 countries willing to build us another one, believe me, and they will pay for it,” he said in an interview with CBN. He downplayed the obvious distance between his and Tillerson’s stances, saying that the difference was only a matter of “tone,” but Tillerson seemed frustrated by the end of his trip. He told reporters he was tired and talked about the difficulty of not being the final decisionmaker as he had been as CEO of ExxonMobil. The U.S. government is “largely not a highly disciplined organization, decision making is fragmented, and sometimes people don’t want to take decisions, coordination is difficult through the interagency,” he said.

What remains remarkable and puzzling is why the Gulf states would prompt a crisis with Qatar without a strategy or even a clear set of goals.

The stalemated Gulf effort to coerce Qatar into the Saudi-led fold has come a long way from the catalyzing incident in May: a bizarre scandal in which provocative comments attributed to Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani were published by hackers on the Qatar News Agency’s website. Despite the Qatari government immediately claiming that the reports were false, the story became the pretext for the Gulf’s isolation campaign targeting Qatar. U.S. intelligence officials now believe that the hack targeting the Qatar News Agency was launched by the United Arab Emirates, the Washington Post reported on Sunday; previous intelligence seen by the FBI suggested that it was carried out by Russian hackers possibly freelancing for a third-party country. Emirati officials promptly denied any involvement in the hack, but suspicion has focused on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since the start, when they so eagerly escalated a dormant dispute over a falsified news report. A pro-Qatar site calling itself GlobalLeaks (which is unaffiliated with the open-source whistleblowing initiative that shares the name) released the hacked emails of several Emirati officials after the initial hack of the Qatar News Agency, and the dispute continues to play out on social media. Pro-Qatar organizations have been paying to promote tweets on Twitter, and a network of bots have been forwarding material from an anti-Qatar site, The Qatar Insider, to everyone from policy wonks to Reince Priebus to the Children’s Law Center. On Monday, Qatari officials accused the United Arab Emirates of violating international law by launching the initial hack in May.

What remains remarkable and puzzling is why the Gulf states would prompt a crisis with Qatar without a strategy or even a clear set of goals. There was clearly a plan for isolating Qatar—Saudi Arabia quickly closed its border with the emirate and convinced its allies to impose sanctions on Doha—but it took weeks for the Gulf bloc to put together a list of demands laying out how, specifically, they wanted Qatar to change its policies. The ultimatum, when it was finally released, was an aggressive attack on Qatar’s independence; Qatar’s foreign minister said the 13-point list was “made to be rejected. It's not meant to be accepted or ... to be negotiated.” But, as Bassima Alghussein and Jeffrey A. Stacey wrote recently for Foreign Affairs, there was no “plan B” for when Qatar refused the demands. They argue that “it is probable that both sides will go forward for the time being in a state of mutual diplomatic paralysis.” The stumbles in the feud mirror other the Saudis’ and Emiratis’ similarly impetuous intervention in Yemen: bold opening moves but no clear endgame. Writing for Monkey Cage Blog, Marc Lynch notes that the diplomatic crisis has demonstrated the limits of Saudi-Emirati leadership in the Gulf, driving Qatar even closer to rival powers in the region like Turkey and Iran, and that “the battle over ‘terrorism’ is really about proxy wars and regime security.”

Israel Rejects Syrian Ceasefire Despite Being Consulted

More details have emerged about the new U.S. and Russian-backed ceasefire currently still holding in southwestern Syria. Foreign Policy reported last week that the agreement includes conditions that Iranian forces and proxies, including Hezbollah, not be allowed to operate in areas adjacent to the Golan Heights and Israeli border. However, Foreign Policy notes that “former U.S. diplomats and observers question whether the agreement is truly enforceable, expressing doubts that Russia could act as a reliable guarantor for a cease-fire involving the Syrian regime, Iran, and its proxies.” It is still unclear how the agreement is supposed to be enforced; last week, BuzzFeed reported that the U.S. military had not been involved in the negotiations for the ceasefire and were surprised when it was announced.

Israel was part of the negotiations, though, White House aide Sebastian Gorka said last Thursday. While Israel was not a signatory to the final agreement, U.S. officials told the Jerusalem Post that the Israeli government was “consulted,” and the Post also reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly before the arrangement was announced. On Sunday, though, Netanyahu said he opposed the ceasefire as it stands. “The prime minister said that while the plan aims to keep Iran 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Israeli border, it did not address Iran’s plans to cement its presence in Syria, which, he said, included the establishment of a naval and air force bases,” the Times of Israel reports. Netanyahu laid out Israel’s “red lines” in Syria at a recent cabinet meeting: Not only must Iran and its proxies be kept away from the Golan Heights, any agreement must also block Iran establishing a permanent military foothold in Syria and prevent Hezbollah from receiving “precision weapons.”

Israel is making its concerns about security in Syria clear, but the Trump administration does not seem to be listening.

While a Trump administration official said Monday that the United States shares Israeli officials’ concerns about Iran’s influence in Syria, the ceasefire the United States agreed to with Russia does not meet Israel’s standards. The agreement also follows gains made by Iranian-backed pro-regime forces in eastern Syria that Israel had previously warned the United States would facilitate an overland route from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah’s strongholds in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Israel is making its concerns about security in Syria clear, but the Trump administration does not seem to be listening.

U.S. Reaffirms Iran’s Compliance with Nuclear Deal with Caveats

The United States reaffirmed on Monday that Iran is complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program reached two years ago. The State Department is required to report to Congress every 90 days about the status of the agreement, and the recertification announced yesterday is the second time that the Trump administration has certified that the agreement is working, despite President Trump’s repeated criticism of the deal. The Trump administration circulated a set of talking points yesterday, published by BuzzFeed, that did not acknowledge Iran’s compliance with the agreement; instead, the Trump administration’s messaging focuses on Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, which is outside the scope of the JCPOA, and argues that “Iran is unquestionably in default of the spirit of that agreement.”

Two years into the agreement, Iran is also arguing that the United States is not acting in good faith. Speaking to Fareed Zakaria on CNN this past weekend, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that President Trump violated the agreement by discouraging investment in Iran at the G-20 summit earlier this month. “That is a violation not of the spirit, but of the letter of the JCPOA,” he told Zakaria. Iran’s distrust of U.S. implementation of the agreement runs deep, and Tehran’s perception that Washington isn’t holding up its end of the bargain only strengthens the arguments made by Iranian hardliners that Iran should maintain its policy of isolation and self-reliance. As Ariane Tabatabai and Annie Tracy Samuel wrote for Lawfare this past weekend, “the JCPOA’s implementation process so far seems to confirm the lessons of the Iran-Iraq War: that Iran can’t trust the United States and the international community, that it must remain on the defensive, and that it must rely only on itself.”

It’s what’s happening outside the terms of the JCPOA that is causing the most strain...

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the international body tasked with evaluating the JCPOA’s implementation, has consistently reported that the parties to the agreement are adhering to the deal. It’s what’s happening outside the terms of the JCPOA that is causing the most strain, and the Trump administration has claimed that it does not share the Obama administration’s willingness to address Iran’s nuclear program to the exclusion of other issues. Iran has continued to develop new ballistic missiles and challenge the United States in the Persian Gulf and eastern Syria; Washington has responded with new rounds of non-nuclear sanctions, and the Washington Free Beacon reports that more could be on the way soon in addition to sanctions being considered by Congress. The tensions are also playing out in judicial rulings. Last Sunday, an Iranian court sentenced a U.S. citizen, Xiyue Wang, a graduate student at Princeton, to 10 years in prison on charges of spying for the United States, and on Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against two Iranian nationals accused of hacking a U.S. company to steal “software that supports aerodynamics analysis and design for projectiles” for sale to Iranian companies and government agencies.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare. He is also an instructor at the Naval War College and a PhD candidate at Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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