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Iran Sent Food to Qatar Amid Middle East Rift

11 Jun 2017 5:08 pm
By Aresu Eqbali in Tehran, Iran, and Asa Fitch in Dubai 

Iran has sent hundreds of tons of food to Qatar in recent days, Iranian officials said Sunday, the first significant sign that the Islamic Republic is trying to insert itself into the worst political break in decades between some of the U.S.'s closest Middle Eastern allies.

The food was meant to help relieve Qatar from its economic isolation after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Doha and closed their air, sea and land borders to the tiny Persian Gulf country, where the U.S. has its largest military base in the Middle East.

Iran has sent at least four planeloads of fruits and vegetables to Qatar since the Arab nations' rift with Doha last week, a spokesman for Iran Air said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. The report couldn't be independently confirmed.

Qatar's only land border is with Saudi Arabia, and it had relied on its larger neighbor for a significant portion of its food, raising concerns of a shortage. Residents initially emptied supermarket shelves of canned goods and other items after the rupture, but calm was restored after Qatari authorities pointed to the country's large food reserves and ability to import essentials from elsewhere.

The four Arab countries that cut ties accused Qatar of meddling in their affairs and harboring terrorists, touching off the Persian Gulf region's biggest political crisis in years. They see entities that Qatar hosts and supports, including Islamist movements Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorist groups.

"The Qatari government has been making deals and looking in the other direction for years, and one is responsible for decisions you make and for the commitments you give, and we're calling them out on that right now," said Reem al-Hashimi, the U.A.E.'s minister of state for international cooperation.

Qatari officials have rejected the four countries' accusations, saying they don't consider Islamist groups terrorists, and that the country has hosted them to act as a mediator.

The split could present a rare opportunity for Iran, the region's main Shiite Muslim power, to drive a wedge between its usually tightly allied Sunni adversaries on the other side of the Persian Gulf, analysts said. Iran and the Gulf states are on opposing sides in a number of regional battlefields, including in Yemen and Syria.

Qatar is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. Most of the GCC countries oppose Iran's regional aims, including its support for Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a long-running challenge by Sunni rebels.

Qatar has supported Syrian rebel groups, but it has been more open than many Gulf neighbors to interaction with Iran, which those neighbors see as their main rival for power and influence. Qatar, which has some of the world's largest gas reserves, shares the gigantic South Pars gas field with Iran.

"I think Iran views this as a huge opportunity, despite Qatari support for rebels in Syria," said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. "Iran has chance to pick off, with Turkey, a GCC member. It doesn't get much better."

Turkey is a close Qatari ally and supports some regional Islamist movements that Qatar has hosted, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey would provide Qatar with food and medicine to address isolation caused by the diplomatic break. Turkey's parliament also recently approved the deployment of troops to a Turkish base in Qatar.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has sent mixed signals on the crisis. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the four countries to cease their economic siege on Qatar, while President Donald Trump lashed out at Qatar on Twitter for allegedly supporting terror groups.

The Iranian shipments of food went to Qatar from Tehran and the southern city of Shiraz aboard Boeing 747s, the Iran Air spokesman was quoted as saying, and the airline was ready to increase the volume of deliveries.

About 100 tons of the food were going every day from Shiraz, the semiofficial Tasnim News Agency quoted agricultural official Ali Hemmati as saying Sunday. Another official said Iran's southern Fars province could send 45 tons of dairy products daily to Qatar, according to Iranian media.

In another supportive move, Iran has opened its airspace for Qatari flights that used to use Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini airspace. Iran Air chief Farhad Parvaresh said Saturday that about 100 more flights a day were traversing Iranian airspace than before, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 11, 2017 13:08 ET (17:08 GMT)

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