Gulf Arab Support for Attacking Iran: The Strange Case of the UAE

The Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the United States, Yousef Al-Otaiba, is in the news for comments he made yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival — comments in which he apparently expressed some measure of support for a U.S. military attack on Iranian nuclear targets.  We have known Yousef since before his appointment as the UAE’s ambassador to the United States.  Based on our previous conversations with him, we do not believe that he wants to see a military confrontation between the United States and Iran.

Unfortunately, neoconservative-flavored reporting of his remarks in Aspen will likely have a damaging impact on the Iran debate in Washington.  In particular, Yousef’s words will be taken as confirmation for some of AIPAC’s more ill-informed and strategically misguided talking points: that Iran poses an objective and unacceptable threat to all U.S. allies, not just Israel; that the Arabs are concerned about the “real threat” of Iran much more than the “false problem” of Palestine; and that containment of Iran is unacceptable as a long-term strategy not just to Israel but to America’s Arab allies as well.

According to Eli Lake in the Washington Times, Yousef responded to a question from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic about the possibility of an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities with the following remarks:

“I think it’s a cost-benefit analysis. . . .  I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion . . . there will be consequences, there will be backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what.  If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran,’ my answer is still the same: We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.  I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE.”

Goldberg himself reports the following observations from Yousef:

“There are many countries in the region who, if they lack the assurance the U.S. is willing to confront Iran, they will start running for cover towards Iran.  Small, rich, vulnerable countries in the region do not want to be the ones who stick their finger in the big bully’s eye, if nobody’s going to come to their support.”

“Countries in the region view the Iran threat very differently.  I can only speak for the UAE, but talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous.  Why should I be led to believe that deterrence or containment will work?  Iran doesn’t have nuclear power now, but we’re unable to contain them and their behavior in the region.  What makes me think that once they have a nuclear program, we’re going to be able to be more successful in containing them?”

And here is how Goldberg renders Yousef’s response to the question, “Do you want the U.S. to stop the Iranian nuclear program by force?”:

“Absolutely, absolutely.  I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you are at risk.  At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States.  It may threaten your assets in the region, it will threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you. . .  .  I am suggesting that I think out of every country in the region, the UAE is most vulnerable to Iran.  Our military, who has existed for the past 40 years, wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat.  It’s the only conventional military threat our military plans for, trains for, equips for, that’s it, there’s no other threat, there’s no country in the region that is a threat to the UAE, it’s only Iran.  So yes, it’s very much in our interest that Iran does not gain nuclear technology.”

Earlier today, a senior official at the UAE Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi declared that the statements attributed to Yousef were “inaccurate”: “These statements came as part of general discussions held on the sidelines of an unofficial gathering and were taken out of their context in which Al-Otaiba was speaking.”

The UAE Foreign Ministry official went on to clarify the Emirati position vis-à-vis Iran, noting that the UAE “believes in the sovereignty of other states and in the principle of non-interference, of all forms, in their internal affairs”:

“Already, the UAE declared, more than one time and in official statements issued by the Foreign Ministry, its position on the Iranian nuclear issue. . . .  The UAE totally rejects the use of force as a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and rather calls for a solution through political means that are based on the international legitimacy, transparency as well as the need for working, through the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the right of all states to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.  The UAE, at the same time, believe in the need of keeping the Gulf region free of nuclear weapons.”

Goldberg has already offered the following reflections on Yousef’s remarks:     

“[T]he ambassador’s position, though stated more plainly, and publicly, than usual, is the standard position of many Arab states.  It is not only Israel that fears the rise of a nuclear Iran; the Arabs, if anything, fear such a development to a greater degree.  The Jews and Arabs have been fighting for one hundred years.  The Arabs and the Persians have been going at for a thousand.  The idea of a group of Persian Shi’ites having possession of a nuclear bomb scares Arab leaders like nothing else — it certainly scares them more than the reality of the Jewish bomb.”

We can expect more commentary of this sort in the days and weeks ahead.  It is important to push back against this kind of (deliberate?) misreading of regional attitudes about a U.S.-Iranian confrontation.  In fact, attitudes in the countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, encompassing Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE) regarding Iran are much more conflicted and less clear-cut than they are usually portrayed in neoconservative commentary.

As Tom Lippman wrote on last month, in a piece looking at Saudi King Abdullah’s meeting with President Obama at the White House:

On Iran, the Saudis are like the Americans in that they know what they want but do not know how to achieve it.  They want the Iranians to stop meddling in Iraq, stop supporting extremist groups and, most important, stop enriching uranium.  They do not believe the latest round of economic sanctions will deter Iran, but they oppose military action by the United States — or, worse yet, Israel — to halt the nuclear program.  Any such attack, they fear, would cause chaos in the Gulf and prompt Iran to strike at them as a way of inflicting pain on the United States.

Saudi Arabia did not oppose the latest U.N. sanctions — Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal even went to Beijing to urge China to support them.  But after a meeting in February with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prince Saud said that “sanctions are a long term solution, but we see the issue in the shorter term, maybe because we are closer to the threats than that.  So we need immediate resolution rather than gradual resolution in this regard.”

He did not specify what “immediate resolution” he had in mind.  Nor could he have done so because, according to Saudi officials I talked to in Riyadh last month, no one has devised any “immediate resolution” short of the war the Saudis don’t want.

We also asked Dr. Jasim Husain Ali to provide a piece updating our readers on attitudes about Iran in the GCC states, with a focus on the UAE.  Jasim is a well-known Bahraini analyst of GCC affairs; we gratefully post his observations below (we note that Jasim wrote his piece before Yusuf’s remarks in Aspen were reported).  We are particularly struck by his comparison of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar — all of which seem focused on maintaining positive relations with Iran — on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other hand.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

* * *

From Dr. Jasim Husain Ali:

Despite their deep differences on issues pertaining to GCC integration, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have one thing in common — making unfriendly gestures toward Iran.  In a span of two weeks, a UK press report alleged covert Saudi assistance to Israel for a prospective Israeli military strike against Iran.  At the same time, the UAE assumed regional leadership in going after Iranian business interests, under the pretext of honoring United Nations Security Council resolution 1929, adopted in New York last month.

Anti-Iran behavior and actions by Saudi Arabia and the UAE are abounding.  For example, chances are that Saudi Arabia could be tricked into facilitating a military assault on Iran, a development that would have far reaching consequences.  The Times of London alleged on 12 June that Saudi Arabia had considered allowing Israeli aircraft use of its airspace to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.  Saudi Arabia has categorically denied the report.  But the Saudis are not actively seeking a peaceful resolution to the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

Strangely enough, the UAE has assumed regional leadership in undermining Iranian business.  On 21 June, the English-language daily Gulf News reported that UAE officials have closed more than 40 local and international firms for allegedly exporting materials to Iran which could have been used in the country’s nuclear program.  However, it is believed that UAE authorities made the decision to target these firms prior to the passage of Resolution 1929 on June 9.  In addition, on June 28, another English-daily newspaper published in the UAE, Emirates Business 24-7, reported that the UAE Central Bank had ordered banks operating in the country to freeze 41 accounts in connection with the resolution.  Clearly, the selection of English-language newspapers rather than Arabic-language media as the venues for publicizing these decisions is driven by an interest in satisfying the United States and its allies.

Clearly, Abu Dhabi has chosen the path of confronting Tehran after succeeding in marginalizing Dubai, the traditional trade hub in the region for Iranian-related business.  This development reflects Abu Dhabi having emerged as Dubai’s financial savior following Dubai’s debt debacle in late 2009.  With its abundance of hydrocarbon resources and hundreds of billions of dollars in state reserves and investment assets, Abu Dhabi cares much less than Dubai about the potential damage to business interests on both sides of the Persian Gulf.  Undoubtedly, the UAE’s anti-Iran policy also reflects the ongoing dispute over the ownership of the three Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb.

The actions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE toward Iran threaten further divisions within the GCC, thereby further undermining prospects for attaining genuine regional integration.  For their parts, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait seem determined to maintain normal neighborly ties with Iran.  Also, Bahrain is said to be close in signing a deal allowing for the import of Iranian gas to help meet industrial demand.

The Islamic Republic has built up some 30 years of experience in dealing with different types of sanctions and hostile actions.  It is highly unlikely that new pressures would yield any outcome other than failure.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 7 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

| Print