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Is the UAE’s engagement with Iran a cold peace or genuine rapprochement?

On August 2, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif exchanged greetings for Eid al-Adha and participated in rare bilateral discussions. In a tweet following their virtual meeting, Zarif stated that he discussed COVID-19 and “bilateral, regional and global situations” with his Emirati counterpart and claimed that they agreed to “continue dialogue on the theme of hope.”

Although the specifics of Zarif’s discussion with Abdullah bin Zayed have not been revealed, their dialogue follows a series of positive developments in UAE-Iran relations over the past eighteen months. The UAE refused to blame Iran for the May 2019 Fujairah oil tanker attacks and engaged with Iranian officials on maritime security in August 2019. The UAE’s regular shipments of COVID-19 related medical aid to Iran, drawdown of forces from southern Yemen, and strengthened relationship with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad also illustrate its desire to ameliorate its confrontation with Iran.

Growing engagement between the UAE and Iran aims to mitigate the risk of a broader regional war and should not be viewed as a harbinger of a drastic improvement in Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Tehran. Although the UAE enthusiastically supported President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy towards Iran, it was alarmed by the security risks posed by brinkmanship in the Persian Gulf.

Threats by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against Emirati cities and the UAE’s concerns that instability in the Persian Gulf would deter capital inflows caused Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to embrace Dubai’s long-standing advocacy for restraint towards Iran. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash’s calls for “wisdom” and “political solutions to prevail over confrontation and escalation” after Qassem Soleimani’s death in January exemplified the UAE’s support for strategic restraint.

By embracing the UAE’s outreaches, Iran seemingly intends to stoke frictions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which could prevent both Gulf countries from presenting a united military front against Tehran in the future. Iranian journalist Arash Khalilkaneh contended that Abdullah bin Zayed’s dialogue with Zarif reflected the UAE’s growing alarm with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “expansionist and authoritarian policies,” and belief that it needed to defy Saudi Arabia in order to avoid becoming a Bahrain-style client state.

Former Iranian ambassador to Jordan and Lebanon Ahmad Dastmalchian similarly opined that bin Zayed’s dialogue with Zarif reflected the UAE’s long-standing dissatisfaction with Saudi foreign policy. As frictions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE persist in Yemen, Iran may be embracing Abu Dhabi and resisting Riyadh as the most effective means of guaranteeing a sustained de-escalation in the Persian Gulf. 

In addition to their desire to prevent the sudden outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf, the UAE and Iran have both used de-escalation to highlight their interest in promoting regional stability and redirect their attention towards more immediate threats. The UAE has used its de-escalation with Iran to highlight its potential stabilizing role in the Gulf region. As U.S.-Iran dialogue has failed to get off the ground, the UAE has reportedly provided serious consideration to Russia’s collective security proposal in the Persian Gulf. After the Zarif-bin Zayed meeting, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Dubai-based political scientist, opined that UAE could emerge as a “credible broker for serious and fruitful Iranian-Gulf dialogue” and prepare the groundwork for U.S.-Iran dialogue.

The UAE’s resistance to a resolution of the Qatar crisis and failure to convert Gargash’s “peace-first” strategy in Yemen into actionable diplomacy have raised doubts about its intentions. But Abu Dhabi is using its dialogue with Iran to present a pragmatic face to the international community. As the UAE’s military support for Libya National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar and perceived influence over Trump’s most bellicose policies have tarnished its image within the Democratic Party in the U.S., Abu Dhabi hopes that its moderate position towards Iran will ease frictions with a prospective Joe Biden administration.

Iran has similarly used its engagement with the UAE to frame itself as a responsible stakeholder in the Gulf region. Although Zarif was initially the most outspoken advocate for Iranian dialogue with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the need for engagement with both countries on Gulf security has gained broader acceptance in Iran.

In June 2020, Yahya Safavi, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader on military affairs, stated that Iran’s relationship with the UAE had improved and called for dialogue with Saudi Arabia “without preconditions.” Iranian news outlet Entekhab viewed the Zarif-bin Zayed meeting as a step forward for Iran’s signature Hormuz Peace Initiative, which calls for friendly relations amongst all countries in the Strait of Hormuz region. This collective security plan was unveiled by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations in September 2019 and has been regularly promoted by Iranian officials over the past year.

The consolidation of the UAE’s cold peace with Iran as a feature of the Persian Gulf’s regional landscape also reflects the desire of both countries to redirect their attentions towards more immediate threats. Due to Turkey’s successful military intervention on the behalf of Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and the UAE’s strengthened bilateral relationship with Greece, tensions between Abu Dhabi and Ankara have reached new heights. The UAE has actively sought to redirect domestic attention away from Iran and towards Turkey and has also convinced Saudi Arabia of the gravity of the Turkish threat.

The contrast between the UAE’s engagement with Iran and confrontation with Turkey was on display in the days leading up to bin Zayed’s dialogue with Zarif. On August 1, Gargash condemned Ankara’s “colonial illusions” in the Arab world, which is a common refrain the UAE uses to condemn Turkish policy. The UAE’s support for Greece’s exclusive economic zone agreement with Egypt and the proliferation of Turkish media commentaries calling for aggressive resistance to Emirati conduct suggests that Abu Dhabi will remain focused on the Turkish threat in the short-to-medium term. Accordingly, the UAE has de-escalated with Iran to avoid a two-front proxy war in the Middle East, even if this policy contradicts the “Arab solidarity” rhetoric that justifies Abu Dhabi’s stance in Libya. 

With the UAE as a diminished threat to its security, Iran is free to confront the sustained uptick in Israel’s airstrikes against pro-Iran targets in Syria. Iranian media outlets frequently highlight the UAE’s impending financial difficulties and also emphasize the vulnerability of Abu Dhabi and Dubai to attacks from the Houthis. Ambassador Dastmalchian similarly described the UAE as a “small and vulnerable country,” which is de-escalating tensions with Iran in order to “prevent future harm.” Iran’s apparent belief that UAE assertiveness in the Middle East has shallow foundations and desire to focus on shoring up Syria’s air defenses have contributed to its dialogue with Abu Dhabi.

Although there is growing optimism about a new dawn in UAE-Iran relations, increased dialogue between the two regional powers is driven by the tactical benefits of de-escalation, their desire to appear like peacemakers, and the presence of more pressing threats. If a Biden victory results in renewed U.S. engagement with Iran and strains in the U.S.-UAE relationship, the cold peace between Abu Dhabi and Tehran could remain intact for the foreseeable future.

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