Looking at the threat from Iran: The Maritime and Aviation Security Working Group meets in the Bahraini capital Manama on October 21. (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

UAE Overtures Expose Cracks in Anti-Iran Policy

Expert: There was never an anti-Tehran alliance, rather a convergence of interests

An alleged secret trip to Tehran by the United Arab Emirates’ national security adviser – a brother of the country’s crown prince who, for his part, is a close confidant of de-facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman – has reinforced a growing perception that cracks are emerging in the US-led effort to combat Iran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization.

Reports of the visit surfaced in Arab media just days before Abu Dhabi unfroze hundreds of millions of dollars in Iranian funds, according to an Emirati lawmaker, and after the well-publicized U-turn this summer by the tiny Gulf nation – whose oil wealth allows it to punch above its weight on the global scene – regarding the war in Yemen.

As recently as the summer, the UAE played an integral role in the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries fighting Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. However, it has since changed tack, choosing instead to support the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist body that does not fully recognize the legitimacy of Riyadh-aligned President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose government was ousted in 2014 when the Houthis captured the capital Sanaa.

“The UAE has pursued its own diplomatic path over the past few months, possibly because [the Emiratis] have felt vulnerable due to the attacks on tankers [off its coast] as well as [repeated] drone [strikes] in Saudi territory,” according to Dr. Sanam Vakil, who leads the Future Dynamics in the Gulf Project and the Iran Forum at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

“There may have been some quiet signaling by Iran that the UAE could be a target,” she told The Media Line.

Following the Tehran-attributed attacks, foremost one that destroyed vital Saudi oil infrastructure and thus temporarily cut the kingdom’s output by half, regional states looked to the US to respond militarily. But no retaliation was forthcoming, causing consternation in Mideast capitals and raising the specter that for all the bluster emanating from the White House, President Donald Trump is unwilling to counter Iranian aggression with strength.

This sense became more palpable following the US leader’s decision to withdraw most American troops from Syria without consulting his allies.

“The UAE’s independent path also speaks to concerns about the nature of the security-based relationship with the US,” Vakil noted, adding that “there have been some anxieties about the reliability of the US to protect Gulf interests. There could likewise be some reflection [in Abu Dhabi] that the Trump Administration’s ‘maximum pressure campaign’ [in the form of economic sanctions] has not been entirely successful.”

Nevertheless, Vakil concluded that while some tactical differences have been exposed, “the takeaway should not be that the UAE is moving away from the strategic alliance with either the US or Saudi Arabia.”

Indeed, the US has continued to spearhead a security mission in the Gulf and is a member of the 60-nation Maritime and Aviation Security Working Group, a body that grew out of a February conference in Warsaw and held a summit last month in Bahrain.

In line with the group’s objectives, the Pentagon has upped its military presence in Middle East waterways, which likely contributed to the lack of reported attacks in October in around the Strait of Hormuz. The US has has also committed to sending some 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to enhance the kingdom’s defense capabilities and, by extension, its deterrence vis-a-vis Iran.

However, there is mounting evidence that these moves are being construed as insufficient. Case in point is the recent visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appears to revel in any opportunity to drive a wedge between the US and its partners – as he did when Washington’s inaction in Syria permitted Moscow to fill the resulting power vacuum and reestablish a formidable presence in the region for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

During his trip to the UAE, Putin finalized numerous bilateral deals that, given historical precedent, could be a prelude to the delivery of sophisticated weapons systems and, perhaps, the sharing of nuclear knowhow. In this respect, the signings included vague “energy” deals. Notably, the Russian leader also vowed to provide “all the necessary assistance to the United Arab Emirates in the space sector,” which could entail the transfer of dual-use technologies applicable to the development of ballistic missiles.

“You will not be disappointed by your Russian partners,” Putin told his Emirati hosts, a statement whose significance surely resonates among those roaming the corridors of power in Damascus.

The UAE therefore seems intent on hedging its bets, the implied message being that given the present circumstances, the prudent course of action is to keep the door open to possible rapprochement, or at the very least détente, with the Islamic Republic.

“There was never really an ‘anti-Iran’ united front,” Dr. Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line. “Rather, there has been a convergence of interests between countries, whose greatest success was most evident in convincing the US government to take a harder line on Iran. But there is a recognition for some time now that Washington’s posture consists of a lot of sound and no fury.”

While Friedman does not believe that this comes as a surprise to Israel, any substantial shift in the prevailing dynamic toward Iran would certainly be met with contempt in the Jewish state. For years, Israel has invested tremendous amounts of resources to push the Iranian nuclear threat to the top of the international agenda, and Jerusalem would suffer a major setback if the “league” of countries that oppose the Islamic Republic it was so instrumental in forging were to unravel.

This may, in fact, be materializing as, according to Friedman, “the Saudis seem to be moving in the same direction as the UAE. Increasingly, the feeling is that Israel is alone in confronting Tehran’s expansion, and the situation is escalating.”

Israel has long contended that extending olive branches to Iran results not in its pacification, but further whetting of the mullahs’ appetites to continue exporting their radical interpretation of Islam throughout the Middle East. Time and time again, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has sounded the alarm bells in this regard, highlighting Tehran’s decision to divert the billions in sanctions relief it received as part of the 2015 nuclear accord to sowing chaos throughout the region and beyond.

Iran construes concessions, the argument goes, as a sign of weakness, to which it responds not with compromise, but by doubling down on its divide-and-conquer stratagem. At the core of the matter, as Netanyahu and others see it, is an irreconcilable paradox: namely, that appeasing Tehran is invariably rewarded with intensifying aggression.

This is the exact outcome all parties are so desperately trying to avoid. It may be a lesson that the UAE learns too late.

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