2011-01-28 Cable: The Amir of Qatar discusses Syria, Egypt, and Iran

US State cable 2010-02-23 10DOHA70 details a February 14, 2010 meeting between Senator John Kerry and the Amir of Qatar. In the meeting, the Amir stresses the importance of Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Hamas “for sure,” he said, will accept the 1967 border but will not say it publicly so as to lose popular Palestinian support. The Amir accuses Egypt of delaying an agreement between Israel and Palestine to extend their own role. “According to the Amir, Fatah and Hamas agreed on a memorandum of understanding, but the Egyptians wanted it changed.” The Amir offers to deliver a message from the US to Iran.

Syria

Chairman Kerry pointed out that Syria’s facilitation of arms to Hizballah and its turning a blind eye to missile upgrades in Lebanon do not represent risk-taking in the promotion of peace. The Amir implied that it would take U.S. intervention on the Syrian-Israeli track to address these issues and asked Senator Kerry what he would have Damascus do. The Amir said Syria is ready for peace, but asked if the Israelis are ready. Would Israel accept to resume Turkey’s mediation between Syria and Israel? Would the U.S. play a role in advancing the Syria track? The Amir encouraged the U.S. to work the Golan Heights issue first. He stressed that Syrians are very different from Iranians in “mentality,” and said the Syrians turned to Iran for support only because they had nowhere else to go. Now is the time, the Amir told Senator Kerry, to reach out to Damascus.

Senator Kerry responded that the U.S. is prepared to play a strong role in bringing about peace in the region. President Obama, said the Chairman, understands that he personally must engage and do so strongly. Chairman Kerry told the Amir he is convinced that we can see great progress in the coming year by moving swiftly from proximity talks, to direct talks between the parties and ending with final status discussions. Senator Kerry noted that one of the biggest problems for Israel is the potential return of 5-6 million Palestinian refugees. The parties broached the return issue in discussions at Taba and agreed that the right of Palestinian return would be subject to later negotiation, pointed out the Chairman. If we can proceed from that point on the right of return, the Senator believes there is an “artful way” to frame the negotiations on borders, land swaps, and Jerusalem as a shared capital.

Any negotiation has its limits, added Senator Kerry, and we know for the Palestinians that control of Al-Aqsa mosque and the establishment of some kind of capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not negotiable. For the Israelis, the Senator continued, Israel’s character as a Jewish state is not open for negotiation. The non-militarization of an eventual Palestinian state and its borders can nonetheless be resolved through negotiation.

The Amir underscored that Abu Mazen needs Arab support to make the above happen. Hamas “for sure,” he said, will accept the 1967 border but will not say it publicly so as to lose popular Palestinian support.

Senator Kerry told the Amir he knew Qatar could help the U.S. but asked how we deal with those who advocate violence. The Amir said the short answer is to work the Syrian track, which means pushing for Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The Amir said return of the Golan is important not just to Syria but also to Hizballah and Iran. The U.S. must bear in mind that Misha’al, a leader of Hamas based in Damascus, has drawn the conclusion that the Oslo accords were bad for Arafat. He lost the support of his own people and died living under Israeli siege. The Syrians can help Misha’al and others make tough choices, but only if the U.S. demonstrates to Syria early on a willingness to address the Golan. Senator Kerry responded that the U.S. would accept a legitimate discussion of the Golan Heights.

What is more, said the Amir, the U.S. needs to support Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria. It is important that the U.S. encourage Israel to understand that that resolving the status of the Golan Heights is very important to the United States.

Senator Kerry asked the Amir if Hamas is under pressure given the circumstances in Gaza. The Amir answered by saying that Hamas needs Iranian support. He added that the biggest misconception in the region is that the Syrians, who host Hamas leaders in Damascus, go to Iran because they like the Iranians. This is wrong. Syria goes to those who will not shun them.

Egypt

The Egyptians have not delivered, said Senator Kerry. The Amir said the Egyptians’ goal is to stay in the game and maintain their relationship with the U.S., which is built around brokering Middle East peace, for as long as possible. According to the Amir, Fatah and Hamas agreed on a memorandum of understanding, but the Egyptians wanted it changed. The Amir remarked that he has a feeling he knows which capital (Cairo) is the source of reports that Gaza is under pressure. He said the economic pressure in Gaza on families is not what it was. He offered as an example that Qatar Charity recently offered a family in Gaza 500 USD, but the family declined the gift saying its members had enough to get by and suggested another family that was in more dire need of assistance. The Amir said the notion that a family would turn down money is new.

The Amir told Senator Kerry that everyone knows “Egypt has a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Okay, we understand. But Egypt should not expect the world to take external actions that would help it internally.”

Asked his advice for President Obama, the Amir recommended the establishment of a small U.S.-Qatar committee to discuss how to proceed. Qatar is close to Hamas, emphasized the Amir, because “we don’t play in their internal politics.” That does not mean we share their ideology or do not disagree with them. “I can remember many arguments with them (Hamas) on the 1967 border with Israel.” The Amir noted that he had mediated with Hamas previously at the U.S. request, namely when he urged Hamas at the previous Administration’s request to participate in Palestinian elections.

Returning to the leadership of Hamas, Senator Kerry asked the Amir for his insights into how the leadership, with leaders sitting in both Gaza and Syria, makes decisions. The Amir said the impression that Misha’al sits in Damascus and others take orders from him is wrong. Several key players within Hamas are involved in decisions. They have differences over policy, but “the bottom line is that they all want the Palestinians to take their rights from Israel.”

Iran

Senator Kerry observed that the international community is moving toward imposing additional economic sanctions on Iran and asked the Amir for his perspective. The Amir answered that his first obligation is to defend the interests of Qatar. Due to the natural gas field Iran shares with Qatar, Qatar will not “provoke a fight” with Iran. He added that in the history of the two countries, “Iran has not bothered us.” That said, the Amir noted that Iran is an important country in the Middle East. He faulted the U.S. for “making the mistake of speaking up for protesters” after the disputed Iranian presidential elections.

The Iranian regime is strong, continued the Amir, because President Ahmadinejad is uncorrupted. “That is the secret to his success.” Khatami is also not corrupted, but as a reformer he is in a weak position. Rafsanjani, on the other hand, is corrupt.

Senator Kerry lamented that every communication the current Administration has attempted to the Government of Iran has gone back channel and been met with no response. The U.S. needs to talk directly with senior Iranian officials replied the Amir. The Amir then asked, “What if I talk to the Iranian President. What would you have me say?”

Senator Kerry responded, “The U.S. seeks serious discussion and sought to create a new foundation for a relationship based on Iran’s non-confrontational compliance with IAEA requirements and other mutual interests.” Those interests include dealing with drug-running, the Taliban, and illicit trade. The Chairman told the Amir he feared that Iran still thinks it is dealing with the 1953 America that tried to overthrow the Iranian government.

The Amir responded that you cannot blame them for having that attitude, and Senator Kerry agreed, adding that the U.S. has a very different posture in the post-Cold War world of today. Iran has ambitions; I know this from other regional leaders, said the Senator. These are the first words that come out of their mouths.

Iran wants to be a “big power,” agreed the Amir, but what sort? He reminded Senator Kerry the U.S. should not forget that Iranians are Persian and the U.S. needs to approach them in that framework.

Senator Kerry stressed that the U.S. “would love to have that dialogue.” The U.S. respects Iranian civilization — talent, art, culture, etc. It is crazy to continue on this collision course. The region needs schools and jobs, emphasized the Chairman, not another war. The Amir agreed that “demographics are a big worry.” Not just for the countries in the region but for the U.S. too.

Many scientific and technological transformations are underway, noted the Senator, “but Iran misinterprets the road to being a great power and the degree to which the international community is concerned about Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.” We are at a “fork in the road,” and Iran must choose between confrontation or building partnerships. If the latter, we can open up new opportunities for cooperation in the sciences, technology, education, robotics, energy and other ongoing transformations.

Senator Kerry reported that leaders of regional Arab countries tell me they want nuclear weapons if the Iranians have them. The Amir responded that he did not believe they were serious, but are saying this to put additional pressure on Iran.

The Chairman noted that the disputed Iranian presidential elections may have derailed U.S. efforts to have serious dialogue with Tehran. The Amir agreed, offering that the Israelis are also using Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons as a diversion from settling matters with the Palestinians. The historical backdrop of Arab-Persian relations does not help, the Amir added.

Final Thoughts

The Amir advised the U.S. to continue trying to open a dialogue with the Iranian leadership. He also told Senator Kerry the U.S. needs to tell the Israelis they are causing the U.S. to lose the hearts and minds of Muslims. There was a time, such as during the Suez Canal crisis, when the Arabs loved the Americans and disliked the British and French, he said.

Senator Kerry asked the Amir how the U.S. goes about changing its reputation. The Amir said first and foremost the U.S. must do everything in its power to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the best way to begin is by moving first on the Syrian track.

The Chairman of the SFRC said he expects a genuine effort by the President this year on an agreement and expressed his hope that Iranian issues would not complicate matters. The Amir agreed, adding that China likes the distraction for the U.S. as its forces fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senator Kerry concurred, noting that China is lending the U.S. money and expanding its influence at U.S. expense. He added that he ran against President George W. Bush saying the war with Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place and time.

The Amir closed the meeting by offering that based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100.

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