Tehran’s reaction to the U.S.-brokered normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was anything but surprising. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the deal as the UAE’s “betrayal” of the Islamic world, Arab nations, and regional countries. The Iranian Armed Forces chief of General Staff, Mohammad Baqeri, warned that Tehran “will blame the UAE” if anything endangers its national security.
This is only the latest episode in a long-running relationship, however, as ties between Iran and the emirates that make up the UAE date back centuries. By some estimates, Dubai, the UAE’s second-largest emirate, is home to half a million or more members of the Iranian diaspora community. The UAE has also been one of Iran’s leading trading partners, especially at a time of U.S.-led sanctions, with the volume of bilateral trade hovering around $12 billion annually.
However, despite their historic ties, relations between Tehran and Abu Dhabi have not been an easy ride. With the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and Iran’s continued regional ambitions, the Emiratis have sought to assuage their security concerns by siding with Saudi Arabia and relying heavily on American military support.
While the signing of the Abraham Accords came as a surprise to some in Tehran, to others it was just the formalization of an existing de facto partnership whose primary purpose was to deliver a political victory for U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the November election.
While not seen as being as important as the Camp David Accords of 1979, the Abraham Accords do indicate a major shift in the views of Arab leaders toward security reliance on Washington. For one, waning support for Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause are being overtaken by other concerns, including Iran and its regional policies.
While the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs has publicly announced that the agreement with Israel is not “about Iran,” officials in Tehran have every reason to believe otherwise. Over the past three years Israel’s continued attacks on Iranian targets and personnel in both Iran and Syria have gone largely unanswered, as was the case with a recent explosion at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Barbara Leaf, former U.S. ambassador to the UAE (2014-18), told MEI that “UAE leaders have been meticulous in deeming the normalization deal with Israel as ‘not against Iran,’ although it is fair to say that Tehran views the deal as very much directed against it.”
According to a report from the Iranian Expediency Council’s Institute for Strategic Research, “Expanding the military-intelligence presence of the Zionist regime” in Iran’s southern borders is the main consequence of the deal.
However, as Ambassador Leaf told MEI by email, “Despite seeing it as a direct threat, Tehran is unlikely to make any bold moves. I do not expect anything beyond vitriolic rhetoric to be directed towards Abu Dhabi. UAE leaders will also be careful to avoid any actions that will be viewed as provocative.”
A similar view was expressed by Diako Hosseini, director of the World Studies Program at Iran’s Center for Strategic Studies. “I don’t believe there will be a significant change on Tehran’s ties with Abu Dhabi. It was no secret to anyone that Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi were cooperating on number of fields, including economy, trade, and even security and intelligence,” he told MEI. However, Hosseini added that the deal might lead to a “paradoxical tendency” among officials in Tehran. While their trust in the UAE’s intentions has been further damaged, they may seek to have closer and better ties with their smaller neighbor “to better observe and monitor its relations with Israel.”
Shared views between Israel and the UAE on Iran?
Regardless of the common ground between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv when it comes to their strategic views on Tehran, they have fundamentally different relationships with Iran. Israel sees Iran as its implacable foe while the UAE does not consider it an existential threat. Abu Dhabi has demonstrated this by walking a fine line to avoid provoking Tehran, even in its traditional habit of siding with Riyadh on regional issues.
This was evident in 2016 when Riyadh called back its ambassador and cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran after a group of hardliners attacked its embassy there. While Manama followed suit and closed its embassy as well, Abu Dhabi took a more cautious approach, recalling its ambassador from Tehran and reducing its diplomatic presence to the level of chargé d’affaires. Importantly, however, it did not cut ties with Iran.
Relations between the two sides began to improve a year ago when the UAE announced that it had released $700 million in frozen funds to Iran. This was followed by the visit of Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Emirati national security adviser, to Tehran last October. Later, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE sent batches of humanitarian aid to sanction-hit Iran. In August, the top diplomats of the two Persian Gulf countries even held a rare video call. Two months later, in yet another sign of improving ties, Iranian media reported that Tehran had appointed its consulate general in Dubai as its new ambassador to UAE.
According to Ambassador Leaf, the recent contacts between Tehran and Abu Dhabi are “more related with the U.S. and the failure of the Trump administration to take clear actions in response to Iran’s attacks on shipping and Gulf energy infrastructure over the course of 2019.” Pointing to the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil infrastructure in Abqaiq, she added that, “The Iranian attack on Abqaiq, in particular, was deeply alarming to all of the governments in the GCC.”
The future regional balance of power
Although Israel’s ties with Persian Gulf countries might not have an immediate effect on the regional equilibrium, it will provide Tel Aviv with the opportunity to present itself as a new player competing over regional influence against Tehran and even Riyadh.
While experts like Ambassador Leaf believe “there is no shift in the regional balance of power as of yet,” she also noted that what “the region appears to be experiencing is the formation of notionally opposing blocs” with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain on one side and countries like Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, which are not necessarily allies on all fronts, on the other.
The emerging alliance between the UAE and Israel has a strong potential to shift the regional balance of power in favor of Israel. The normalization of ties with an array of Sunni Arab countries on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf will allow these small but mostly wealthy states to rely on a new regional player outside of the traditional choice between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While this deal has primarily been viewed as an Israeli and Arab measure against Iran, it might have unintended consequences when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s regional influence as well. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long sought to expand Israel’s diplomatic and economic ties with Arab countries to reduce Tel Aviv’s isolation in regional affairs. With other diplomatic agreements said in the making, following that with Sudan on Oct. 23, Israel may even be well-positioned to indirectly influence important decisions made in the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This influence could easily shift the regional balance of power by effectively undermining Saudi Arabia’s hegemony over the smaller Arab countries of the GCC and reducing its broader sway among Muslim countries in general.
Maysam Bizaer is an analyst and commentator who focuses mostly on Iran’s foreign policy, politics, and economy. He is a frequent contributor to a number of international media and U.S.-based think tanks. Follow Maysam on Twitter @m_bizar. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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