Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, at right, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrive to give a press conference following a meeting in Doha on Jan. 7, 2024, during Blinken’s weeklong trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East

Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

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Qatar’s Ugly Hostage Trade

The emirate’s role as a back channel between the U.S. and Iran has metastasized into something far more dangerous

Lee Smith
February 07, 2024
Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, at right, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrive to give a press conference following a meeting in Doha on Jan. 7, 2024, during Blinken's weeklong trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East

Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was recently caught on a recording wondering why the Biden White House wasn’t putting more pressure on Qatar to squeeze Hamas and free more than a hundred Israeli, American, and other hostages still left in Gaza. Netanyahu told hostage families that Qatar “is no different in essence than the United Nations … and the Red Cross.” The controversial petro-emirate, he clarified, “is even more problematic.”

That mildly critical assessment of Iran’s bagman offended the Qataris—a Foreign Ministry spokesman complained that the emirate was “appalled” by Netanyahu’s remarks. It seems that in Qatar, calling someone “problematic” is as bad as calling their mother a whore. The Israeli leader’s comments, said the spokesman, are “obstructing and undermining the mediation process, for reasons that appear to serve his political career instead of prioritizing saving innocent lives, including Israeli hostages.”

Qatar says it gets hostage deals done because it doesn’t take sides, like a geopolitical marriage counselor, but that’s not what an impartial mediator is supposed to sound like. No, that sounds like a spin doctor for a political operation designed to turn Israeli opinion against their government during wartime: When Iran’s Palestinian proxy tortures your brothers and sisters held in captivity until they’re dead, blame Bibi. And indeed, Qatar is using the Oct. 7 hostage crisis as a platform for an Iranian information operation weaponized to demoralize the Israeli public and leave Hamas standing.

Supporting Iran’s Qatari-mediated hostage campaign is the Santa Fe-based Richardson Center for Global Engagement, founded by the late former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson. According to a Jewish Insider report, the Richardson Center advised Oct. 7 hostage families that “pressure on Qatar would be counterproductive because Qatar holds all the leverage.” Curiously, the Richardson Center failed to disclose to the families that Qatar was one of its donors (to the tune of over $2 million between 2019-23).

“The funding provided by Qatar,” said Richardson’s Vice President Mickey Bergman in 2019, “will allow us to expand our team, engage in more on the ground activities, and provide even greater support to families in their darkest hours.” Bergman is an Israeli and former IDF paratrooper. He reportedly told hostage families that “pressure on Qatar would mean making them choose between Hamas and the U.S.”

The Richardson Center’s role is to give Western cover to Iran’s proxy Qatar and wrangle Oct. 7 families. In January, Bergman tweeted, “the deal last month was better than today’s. Unfortunately, it was not taken & several hostages killed since. If your goal is to bring hostages home, you do what you need to, today. If your goal is different, you criticize those who r trying to bring them home.” That is, if Oct. 7 families want to see their loved ones again, they should stop bad-mouthing the Arab state that funds the hostage-takers and houses its leadership, and instead pressure Israel to give in to Iranian demands.

It’s hard to pose as a global superpower while allowing the servicemen and women you put in harm’s way to be killed with impunity.

Qatar answers to Iran, a fact illustrated by what remains perhaps the strangest Middle East hostage story in recent memory. In December 2015, 28 members of Qatar’s royal family were taken hostage while on a hunting trip in Iraq. Two of the hostages were relatives of the current prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. After nearly 16 months, the Qatari government began the process to free the hostages through the mediation of the Iraqi interior minister who knew which group was holding them—the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia Kata’ib Hezbollah.

Doha offered to pay handsomely for its royals, but Iran’s Iraqi and Lebanese proxies made clear to the Qataris that the matter was in Qassem Soleimani’s hands. The then-chief of Iran’s terror unit, the Quds Force, demanded more than just money. In exchange for the hostages, Iran wanted Qatar to fund a transfer of populations between four Syrian villages to reinforce strategic Iranian geography in support of the Bashar Assad regime. After brokering the transfer—during which Sunni terrorists blew up a busload of Shiite villagers, leaving 126 dead—and spending an estimated $1 billion to pay off Kata’ib Hezbollah and other terror groups, the Qataris finally got their royals released in April 2017.

The fact that Qatar’s prime minister couldn’t get the Iranians to free his own relatives for nearly two years shows where Doha stands in the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy. Qatar is neither willing to nor capable of strong-arming Iran’s proxy army in Gaza into releasing hundreds of Jews, including Americans. As the Richardson Center’s Bergman made plain, “the only way to get the hostages out fast is for Israel to give in to Hamas’ demands, which include ending the war and releasing all Palestinian terrorists from prison.”

Israelis are hardly the only ones being held hostage by Iran and its proxies. So are American forces in the Middle East. Last month, Kata’ib Hezbollah launched a drone that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan. But President Biden didn’t want to retaliate against Iran for fear of collapsing the pro-Iran policy established by his former boss Barack Obama, so U.S. intelligence officials leaked an assessment to the press that Iran doesn’t control the proxy groups it trains, funds, and arms to kill Americans and U.S. allies in the Middle East.

That got Biden off the hook‚ but it’s hard to pose as a global superpower while allowing the servicemen and women you put in harm’s way to be killed with impunity. Biden considered his options, then announced his intentions to hit targets in Iraq and Syria, which gave the Iranians a week to scatter high-value assets and personnel, after which he bombed meaningless targets in those countries. One U.S. official made sure to tell the Iranians through U.S. media that “there are no indications that members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed as part of the operations.” The U.S. president thereby signaled to the Iranians that they are free to continue directing their Arab assets to kill Americans.

Iran’s proxies and cutouts are successful in this sickening game that puts the lives of hostages and servicemen alike at risk only to the extent that officials in the Biden administration are willing to deny and disguise the regime’s active role in targeting Americans. By contrast, when Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 U.S.-Iran agreement that legalized the terror state’s nuclear weapons program, he signaled that unlike his predecessor he didn’t see Tehran as a regional partner to replace Israel and Saudi Arabia. Accordingly, when Iranian proxies killed an American contractor and laid siege to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in December 2019, Trump cut off the head of Iran’s paramilitary snake by killing Soleimani. The January 2020 drone strike that got the Iranian terror chief also tagged then-leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, thereby underscoring the fact that Iran is directly responsible for the actions of its proxies.

In comparison, Biden’s Iran policy is a hall of mirrors designed to hide facts likely to disturb the American electorate while allowing the White House to deepen its relationship with Iran. For Americans, the most repugnant feature of what the Biden team sees as a program of regional integration under the Iranian banner is this: U.S. forces are based in Iraq and Syria to protect Iranian interests in those countries. Under the guise of counterterrorism missions, American troops are detailed to target any Sunni Arab population that the Iranians and their allies designate as ISIS, and thereby risk their lives to secure Iran’s position in countries the Islamic Republic has helped destroy.

The Iranians persist in targeting American troops to remind the White House who calls the shots. Yes, the Iranians have directed more than 160 attacks on U.S. forces since October, but the reason for these attacks is hardly Israel’s post-Oct. 7 military response to Hamas: The Iranians have been launching regular attacks on U.S. troops in the region since Biden took office—starting with an attack against a U.S. airbase in Iraq in February 2021. The Iranians and their proxies are free to attack American forces because the White House has abandoned them to the mercies of Tehran, effectively turning U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines into a security deposit ensuring that the Biden administration will continue to advance Iranian, rather than American, interests.

Taking hostages, after all, is how Iran does business. When in its infancy the Islamic Republic seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and ransomed 52 Americans, it led the news almost every night, for 444 days. It cost Jimmy Carter the presidency. In the intervening years, the Iranians and their proxies have kidnapped so many people—like Terry Anderson (Hezbollah, 1985-91), Roxanne Saberi (the Iranian regime, 2009), Austin Tice (the Syrian regime, 2012 to the present) and most recently Elizabeth Tsurkov (Kata’ib Hezbollah, 2023 to the present)—that Hamas’ Oct. 7 abductions are just part of the background music of the Middle East. It should shock the world that a nation-state and its proxy forces regularly imprison, torture, and rape innocents until their governments cough up enough money to get them back—or until they are dead. But nearly half a century after the 1979 hostage crisis, the Iranians have acclimated most of the world to the idea that this barbaric practice is just a conventional instrument of their foreign policy.

As president, Obama further normalized Iran’s terms. He helped legitimize hostage-taking as a function of Iranian statecraft by directing his officials to use hostage talks as an entry point that could double as a diplomatic channel to realign U.S. interests with Iran. In 2009, the Iranians kidnapped three Americans who had inadvertently crossed over the Iraq border. Oman mediated U.S.-Iran hostage negotiations, and sure enough the White House used that line of communication for secret talks with Iran to legalize its nuclear weapons program. The nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was the Obama administration’s top foreign policy priority, with the end goal of turning Iran into a regional hegemon. Representing the administration in those secret talks were William Burns and Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s CIA director and national security adviser, respectively.

With the nuclear deal concluded in 2015, Obama went back to the hostage stratagem and gave the Iranians a signing bonus of $1.7 billion, including $400 million in cash, in exchange for four U.S. hostages in January 2016. With that flourish, hostages became an official medium of exchange, which allowed the White House, in the absence of any formal diplomatic agreement or congressional approval or oversight, to ship pallets of cash to Tehran.

Biden loaded his administration with many of the same people who ran Iran policy under Obama, including former Iran envoy Robert Malley, whose security clearances were revoked last April after he was alleged to have mishandled classified information. In his role as head of the Washington NGO the International Crisis Group, and then while serving as a U.S. government official, Malley supported and facilitated an Iranian influence operation targeting Western capitals, including Washington itself, and pushed one of its assets, Ariane Tabatabai, into the U.S. government. She, too, appears to be part of the hostage-industry infrastructure. Tabatabai remains chief of staff to the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a portfolio that includes hostage rescue operations. Recently her boss posted photos of himself traveling with Tabatabai to visit U.S. troops at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. For Tehran, the pictures signal that no matter what the headlines may say, the understanding with Washington is unchanged.

The hostage-industry infrastructure gives the White House a way to service the unofficial alliance between the two governments, without having to explain why the U.S. is sending money to Iran, or what the Iranians are doing with it. For instance, in August the Biden administration gave Iran access to $6 billion in previously frozen oil revenues in exchange for five Americans. Was any of that money used to fund Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre? The White House says no. Instead, it claims that according to Qatar, which brokered the deal and parked the $6 billion in its central bank, the Iranians haven’t touched it. The fact that the White House thinks the American public and their elected representatives should take the word of Iran’s bagman is evidence that Qatar’s exertions as an “impartial mediator” have normalized the idea that it’s OK to pay off the Iranians and their proxies for kidnapping and killing Americans and our allies.

This deliberate misdirection is what Obama intended in 2012, when he asked Qatar to establish a channel with Hamas on behalf of the U.S. Given that Doha is one of Hamas’ benefactors—as of 2023, total aid from Qatar to Gaza is believed to be more than $2.1 billion—the official U.S. line is that the Qataris have leverage over Hamas. They must, or why else would they be brokering negotiations to return the Oct. 7 hostages? Isn’t that what the Richardson Center’s Bergman meant when he told the Israeli families that Qatar has all the leverage?

From the Pentagon to the capital’s paper of record, Qatar has Washington covered. It’s Iran’s stalking horse.

Accordingly, the Netanyahu government and Oct. 7 hostage families believe that since the U.S. has leverage over Qatar, it can compel the emirate to use its power and influence on Hamas. In this view, Qatar should defund the Palestinian terror group and throw its leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal out of their luxury hotel suites in Doha and put them in prison until Hamas releases its captives. But the Biden team isn’t going to pressure Qatar for the same reason it hit irrelevant targets in Syria and Iraq: It wants to preserve its relationship with Iran. And the leverage Qatar does have isn’t going to be used to pressure Hamas.

As the world’s go-to goodwill ambassador, Qatar says it’s impartial. But the only party in the region on whose behalf Qatar “mediates” is the one that takes hostages. Qatar works for Iran. It’s ugly, but it makes sense: If your foreign policy is keyed to the money you spend buying foreign elites and their institutions, and the source of that wealth is a giant natural gas field that you share with Iran, you take sides. And it’s not a hard choice: Is it the side that tortures and rapes hostages and kidnapped 28 Qatari royals, or is it the Americans, who won’t even shut down the local bureaus of Qatar’s flagship propaganda arm Al Jazeera, never mind make good on vague threats to move U.S. Central Command’s forward base out of Al Udeid airfield? It is Qatar that holds leverage over the U.S., which it exercises on its own behalf and Iran’s.

Consider the money that Qatar spreads around Washington, D.C. From the $14.8 million check that Obama administration peace processor Martin Indyk cashed as director of the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program to the billions Doha has spent on Al Udeid to lobby the Pentagon, as well as its massive investments in key American institutions like major universities, Qatar has leverage over nearly all parts of the U.S. government and American elites.

Qatar’s lavish expenditures are meant to show that the rewards for aligning with Qatar are great, while the punishment meted out by Iran’s fixer can be painful. According to a recently published Fox News report, in 2017 Qatar hired former CIA agent Kevin Chalker to spy on and smear U.S. legislators like Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, and Democratic Congressman Ed Royce, who all supported legislation against Hamas. “An attack on Hamas is an attack on Qatar,” Chalker warned in a lengthy document prepared for his Qatari clients.

The ex-agency man also recommended that Qatar target rival United Arab Emirates by “exposing [the] enemy secrets” of the UAE’s flashy and well-connected Washington Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. Chalker recommended that Qatar call on its media assets, identifying, among others, Max Blumenthal, anti-Israel activist and son of fading Clinton-world influencer Sidney Blumenthal; The Intercept; and The New York Times. Only months after Chalker produced the report, the Times published stories based on hacked Otaiba emails in a campaign intended, as reporter David Kirkpatrick acknowledged, “to embarrass the U.A.E. and benefit Qatar.” From the Pentagon to the capital’s paper of record, Qatar has Washington covered. It’s Iran’s stalking horse.

What happens in Gaza, then, will have consequences throughout the world—for Iran’s hostage infrastructure is built with something grander in mind than just trading human flesh for cash. After Oct. 7, Iran has made it clear that the purpose of its nuclear weapons program was never just to threaten Israel and Saudi Arabia, but also to hold the whip hand in world trade and energy markets. With Biden all but standing down the U.S. Navy, the Houthis, Iran’s proxy in Yemen, have closed Red Sea shipping lanes and forced major container shipping lines to take alternate routes, raising the prices of goods around the world. With a nuclear bomb in its arsenal, Iran’s next hostage is the global economy.