Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed a pact with Qatar Tuesday to suppress terrorist financing, a deal that U.S. officials hope will lead to progress in the ongoing dispute between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors.
The memorandum of understanding aims to enhance collaboration between Washington and Doha on identifying sources of funding for terrorist groups. Qatar’s alleged support of terrorism and Iranian-backed militia groups was the main reason a Saudi Arabia-led coalition broke off diplomatic and economic ties in early June.
Following meetings with Qatari leaders in Doha, Tillerson said the deal outlines steps both countries will take to “interrupt and disable terror financing flows and intensify counter-terrorism activities globally,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
“Together the United States and Qatar will do more to track down funding sources, will do more to collaborate and share information and will do more to keep the region and our homeland safe,” Tillerson said at a press conference.
The pact comes on the second stop of Tillerson’s “shuttle diplomacy” tour to mediate the Gulf crisis. The secretary of state visited Kuwait Monday and is scheduled for additional meetings in Saudi Arabia later this week. The dispute began June 5 when four countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — put Qatar under an economic and travel blockade, accusing the tiny but wealthy country of cozying up to Iran and giving aid to both Sunni and Shiite terrorist groups. (RELATED: Tillerson Kicks Off Middle East Tour To Defuse Persian Gulf Crisis)
Qatar has denied the allegations and rejected a listed of demands from the coalition, which include shuttering Doha-based media network Al-Jazeera, cutting ties with Islamist groups, and expelling all Iranian and Turkish military elements working in the country. Qatari leaders say the Saudi-led group is using terrorism concerns as a pretext for diminishing Qatar’s influence in the region. With neither side willing to budge on core demands, U.S. officials fear the the diplomatic spat could continue into the foreseeable future.
Tillerson sounded an optimistic note Tuesday, saying the anti-terrorism memorandum would serve as an example for future cooperative deals between in the Middle East.
“The agreement in which we both have signed on behalf of our governments represents weeks of intensive discussions between experts and reinvigorates the spirit of the Riyadh summit,” Tillerson said, referring to a May conference with U.S. and Arab leaders.
The State Department has not indicated if the U.S. will encourage other countries in the Saudi-led coalition to sign on to the memorandum or try to make separate deals with those countries. Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the pact “a good first start” that sends a message to the coalition that Qatar is serious about tamping down terrorist financing.
The feud presents a significant diplomatic problem for the U.S., which counts both Saudi Arabia and Qatar as key military allies in the region. Saudi Arabia has critical counter-terrorism ties to Washington, and Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command’s al-Udeid Air Base, the hub of U.S.-led operations against ISIS.
In the weeks leading up to Tillerson’s trip, the Trump administration had preferred to let Kuwait arbitrate the dispute, but changed course when it became apparent the negotiations had reached an impasse. Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, has extensive experience in the Middle East, particularly in negotiating oil and gas development deals in Qatar.
Tillerson has taken pains to avoid the perception that the U.S. favors one side over the other, conflicting at times with the White House’s position. President Donald Trump sided with Saudi Arabia in June and publicly criticized Qatar for supposedly being a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Tillerson, by contrast, has taken a more neutral stance, saying Tuesday that Qatar’s position in the dispute was “very reasonable.”