Israel eyes UAE-Iran rapprochement with caution

“This is very worrisome for Israel,” said Dr. Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf states from the University of Haifa.

 Women walk past the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 11, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
Women walk past the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 11, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)

Recent regional developments have Israel worried, as some of its newfound allies are inching closer to its archrival Iran. 

The announcement by an Emirati official last month that a delegation from the United Arab Emirates is slated to visit Tehran in the near future is the latest cause for concern in Jerusalem. But, while monitoring events closely, Israel has faith in the ties forged with the UAE. 

Still, relations in the Middle East can be fickle. What appears stable one day may experience upheaval the next.

“This is very worrisome for Israel,” said Dr. Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf states from the University of Haifa and Mitvim − The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “Rapprochement will come with a price. Getting closer to Iran and getting closer to Israel doesn’t work together.”

Israel and the UAE established full diplomatic relations in 2020. The agreement came as part of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and four countries: the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan.

 Farmers work in a field as smoke from an oil refinery rises in the background, in Tehran, Iran June 3, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) Farmers work in a field as smoke from an oil refinery rises in the background, in Tehran, Iran June 3, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

According to Zaga, the UAE is now likely to make less of an effort to get additional countries to join the Abraham Accords. While the status quo of the agreements will remain untouched, they will not be expanded.

“The glass ceiling of the accords is now more visible,” she continued. “There will be limitations regarding the relations with Israel.”

Israel is downplaying its concerns.

“Israel is not concerned, but also not happy with this development,” a diplomatic source in Jerusalem told The Media Line, “We expressed our interest in the developments and they [the UAE] know very well we don’t like this, but we do not need reassurances.”

The relations between the UAE and Israel are believed to be stable enough and the pact not at any risk.

“The keyword is pragmatism,” said Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, “The UAE has no illusions about Iran, its nuclear aspirations, and its wish to extend its influence in the region. It wants to maintain a good relationship with Iran but that doesn’t contradict a good relationship with Israel.”

Jerusalem is also following with great interest the possible impact of the nuclear negotiations taking place in Vienna on shifting regional alliances. As Iranian delegates negotiate the terms of a possible new deal, Israel is already jittery. Projection of American power, or the lack thereof, in the negotiation room, will surely have an effect on the political balance in the region.

“For the UAE, there is a feeling that the US is perceived as significantly weaker in the region [than under the previous administration] and they need to take care of themselves,” the diplomatic source in Jerusalem said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are aligning themselves… with the more threatening actor in the region, in order to avoid confrontation with Iran.”

The results of the nuclear negotiations will be far-reaching, as Tehran already casts a long shadow across the region.

“If there will be an agreement, Iran will be emboldened and will have plenty of money from sanction relief and will still be able to maintain its nuclear program,” said Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It will be clear who will call the shots in the Gulf.”

Days before the talks in Vienna resumed after a six-month break, Iran’s chief negotiator and deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, visited the UAE.

“We agreed to open a new chapter in the relations,” he posted on his Twitter account after the visit.

Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the UAE president and a former minister of state for foreign affairs, was quoted in the media as saying the countries were taking steps to de-escalate the tensions between them.

Iranian state media reported Sunday that UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan will visit Iran on Monday to discuss expanding bilateral ties, in what appears to be one of those steps.

Relations between the UAE and Tehran have been tense for years, as concern about Iranian regional activities mounted. In 2019, the two sides began a dialogue following Iranian attacks on Emirati ships in the Gulf. Simultaneously, the UAE announced its withdrawal from Yemen, where it was heavily entrenched in the fighting against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The result of the Iranian-Emirati dialogue was a Memorandum of Understanding on border security that guaranteed maritime stability for the UAE.

The political shift in the US and the perception throughout the Middle East that the Biden Administration is less engaged in the region has had a direct impact on the recent Emirati moves.

“Iran and the UAE have already been engaged in political dialogue, but the change in the US administration has the UAE taking an additional step further in its relations with Iran,” said Zaga. “They understand that the [new] defense alliance with Israel does not compare with an American defense umbrella and that [President Joe] Biden shows no signs of willingness to go the extra mile for them.

“The change in the US has a critical impact on the foreign policy changes we are seeing all over the region,” Zaga continued. “There is an understanding that something needs to change. At this point, the umbrella that the US is offering is limited and vague.”

The UAE and Iran had a significant relationship long before normalization with Israel was considered. Trade between Abu Dhabi and Tehran is substantial and remained so even during times of heightened tensions. The UAE is Iran’s second-largest trade partner after China. This relationship is not going away and Israel understands this.

“Israel is understanding of this,” said Teitelbaum. According to him, the steps by the UAE are largely a signal to Washington. “When they see that the US seems to be withdrawing and that Iran may get the better of the US in the nuclear talks, they are going to want to have improved relations with Iran.”

Israel and the UAE share concern over Iran, but the threat is perceived differently. Lackluster American responses to Iranian attacks throughout the Middle East have left a long-lasting impression on the Gulf states.

“The Emiratis are much more dependent on the US and much closer in proximity to Iran,” said Guzansky. “Israel needs to understand that the UAE cannot align itself with Israel against Iran; there can be cooperation on tactical moves but anything more is against their interest.”

It is clear that the region is in a period of major geopolitical changes. Both the UAE and Israel appear to be pragmatic about the relations and both are looking to see how the US is repositioning itself.

“Everyone wants the US to step up and everyone is hedging their bets,” said Teitelbaum, “but we are not witnessing any tectonic shifts here.”