Should Israel worry about warming UAE-Iran ties?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: While top Israeli officials are going to its allies to warn against relieving pressure on Tehran, the UAE is intensifying its relations with its neighbor.

 UAE NATIONAL Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan (center, with red keffiyeh) arrives to meet with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, earlier this week. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS)
UAE NATIONAL Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan (center, with red keffiyeh) arrives to meet with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, earlier this week.
(photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA/REUTERS)

An interesting picture popped up on news sites throughout the Middle East this week. At first glance, it stood out for the unusual attire for a diplomatic meeting.

On the left was a man in a kefiyyeh and a blue thobe, the ankle-length robe worn by many Arab men, a pretty standard look in parts of the Middle East, except that it was topped with a Western-style black suit jacket, and he was wearing aviator sunglasses indoors. He shook hands with a man in a powder-blue sweater-vest, topped with a buttoned blue suit jacket that was bursting from being a size or two too small.

But even more interesting than the men’s unique fashion statements were the flags behind them: Emirati and Iranian.

The men are UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani.

Tahnoon bin Zayed – who often wears his sunglasses indoors – also met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and invited him for a state visit, according to Iranian media, though UAE’s state-run WAM news agency did not mention the invitation.

 Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi meets with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Their meeting marked a big step toward the rapprochement between the two countries, after years of caution by the Emiratis, who view Iran as a national security threat.

Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is Tahnoon’s brother, has long been concerned about a nuclear Iran, which was one of the factors that brought his country closer to Israel and led to the eventual Abraham Accords last year. He also built up the Emirati army in recent years to defend the country from the Iranian threat.

THE MEETING in Tehran came during a lull in the negotiations between world powers and Iran for the Islamic Republic to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment until 2030, in exchange for the gradual lifting of sanctions.

The US left the deal in 2018, not long after the Mossad smuggled an Iranian archive out, which proved that Tehran was working on a military project. But the Biden administration wants to return to the original deal in order to restrain that nuclear program.

Last week’s negotiations were the first since June, when Iran elected Raisi, who was even more anti-West than his predecessor and critical of the JCPOA.

The Western parties to the talks – Britain, France, Germany and, indirectly because the Iranians refuse to sit in a room with them, the US – came to them last week deeply skeptical that they would be fruitful, but still believing that diplomacy is the preferred path to take to counter the Iran nuclear threat. Some toyed with an interim agreement that would have the US lift some post-2018 sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing, not rolling back, its nuclear project.

The talks adjourned after two days, with Western diplomats briefing journalists that Iran had proven to be intransigent, submitting unrealistic proposals. But they resumed a week later, on Thursday.

A senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem said that “the Emiratis hedging their bets is not a good sign,” in terms of how they see Iran talks going. “They see a danger of returning to the 2015 normalization of Iran, so they’re being careful,” the source added.

“Iran is their neighbor and they’re a big country, so the UAE needs to play a mixed game,” the source said. “Even when they had a more anti-Iranian line, they were cautious and kept up economic ties.”

Abu Dhabi-based expert on Israel-Arab relations Loay Alshareef similarly said: “We cannot change geography. Iran is a neighboring country that is a few kilometers away from many Arab states in the Arabian Gulf.”

Alshareef put the meeting in a broader context, not related to Vienna, and pointed to recent visits by Sheikh Tahnoon to Qatar and Turkey, countries with which the UAE had tense relations in recent years.

“The UAE is making sure to keep good ties with key players in the region to minimize tension and achieve peace,” he said.

LIKE ALSHAREEF and the Israeli diplomatic source, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs president Dore Gold said the Emiratis are probably trying to place themselves in a position of greater neutrality so they won’t be targeted by Iran.

However, he said that effort is misguided.

“If anyone thinks that by giving in to Iran, it will make them suddenly behave better, they’re sorely mistaken. That will only invite greater Iranian intervention in the Middle East,” Gold warned.

Gold, who was in Bahrain for the Global Think Tank Summit this week, saw the meeting in terms of the UAE bracing itself for a Middle East with less support and intervention from the US.

Beyond Washington’s perceived eagerness to rejoin the Iran deal, even at the cost of it being weaker than in the past, many American allies in the region were horrified by the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Gold’s interlocutors from the Gulf this week, especially the Emiratis, “perceive some kind of American weakness,” he said.

“The buzz is all about what is going on with the UAE and the US,” Gold said. “Their perception is that America is leaving the Middle East – something that Iran talks about all the time, including [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, and is a strategic goal.”

Similarly, the diplomatic source in Jerusalem said that “all roads lead to Washington,” and that American decisions reverberate throughout the region.

Alshareef said America’s role in the Middle East is very important, “but that doesn’t mean Gulf states have to always play a secondary role in the region. Gulf states assess and form a view of what’s happening, and the UAE is transparent with its allies. The Americans know that this serves a stable region.”

GOLD WARNED that Abu Dhabi may be playing into Tehran’s hands in terms of creating a wedge with Jerusalem.

“For the president of Iran, Raisi, to come to Abu Dhabi is a worrying development that could portend a process by which Tehran seeks to erode the Abraham Accords, unless there is a significant change from the US,” he said.

“Iran has had a long-term interest in undermining the Abraham Accords.... When the UAE sends a senior minister from the royal family to Tehran, it’s the strongest indication that that strategy is starting to work,” he added.

There are, of course, many other countries that have good relations with Israel and Iran, so Gold said the impact of the latest moves on Israel-UAE ties depends on how far the latter is going in its rapprochement with Tehran.

“It’s one thing to have a meeting at the UN or a European capital, but it’s another to go to Tehran and invite the president of Iran to come to your capital,” he said. “In terms of gradation, they’re moving very fast, very hard.”

At the same time, the senior diplomatic source was not overly concerned about Abu Dhabi’s overtures to Tehran.

“It’s not a big drama; this was expected,” the source said.

Alshareef took issue with viewing the Abraham Accords as a zero-sum game.

“The Abraham Accords are not meant to harm any country, including Iran,” he said. “UAE-Israel relations are thriving in many fields, and it will increase and grow for the interests of both countries.”

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a handful of attempts to meet with MBZ – as the UAE’s leader is nicknamed – that were thwarted by politics and COVID-19, which wouldn’t allow Netanyahu to make the trip into a major event and to hold court with businesspeople in Dubai.

But this is a key moment for Israel’s relations with the UAE and, with Iran nuclear talks ongoing, for Israel in general, which could warrant holding a long-awaited meeting between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and MBZ soon.

Due to the spread of the Omicron variant, such a visit would be unlikely to include a stop for Bennett at the Israeli Pavilion in the Dubai Expo as had long been planned.

But it would allow the two leaders to have a serious tête-à-tête and for Bennett to ensure the countries’ relations stay on track, not only in relation to the Iranian threat but to other forms of UAE-Israel cooperation on defense, trade, health, technology and more.

A meeting with MBZ would be “a very important move by Bennett, because if the UAE feels both the US and Israel shifted, then the situation is not good,” Gold said.

“It may be close to too late” to head off the warming of UAE-Iran ties, “but it’s important that we try,” Gold said.

“In a period in which Israeli-Iranian relations are more problematic than ever, Israel needs a strong strategic partner in the Middle East, and the UAE is certainly that kind of a partner,” Gold asserted.•