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What the UAE-Israel deal means for Iran

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Meng Tao/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran has reacted angrily to the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize ties with Israel, a move that could increase pressure on Tehran amid suggestions by U.S. and Israeli officials that other Persian Gulf states could follow suit.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani blasted de facto U.A.E. leader Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed’s reported pledge, which follows a de-escalation with Tehran, as a “huge mistake.” Rohani also warned the U.A.E. against allowing Tehran’s regional archenemy, Israel, to secure a “foothold in the region.”

The Iranian armed forces chief of staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, meanwhile said Tehran’s approach toward the U.A.E. will change as a result of the planned peace deal. The U.A.E., he said, will be held responsible “if something happens in the Persian Gulf and if our national security is damaged.”

Deeper cooperation between the Jewish state and Persian Gulf states and a potentially expanded Israeli presence in the region is seen by many in Tehran as a threat to Iran’s interests and regional ambitions. Tehran is already under heightened pressure due to crippling U.S. economic sanctions and one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus in the Middle East, which has killed nearly 20,000 Iranians and infected more than 340,000, according to official figures.

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The U.S. assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’s overseas Quds Force, who worked to expand Tehran’s regional interests, was another major blow to the Islamic republic.

“Undoubtedly, the most important parameter in reducing or increasing the security of the Israelis is related to reducing or increasing the pressure on Iran,” Fereydoun Majlesi, a former diplomat and commentator on international affairs, told the irdiplomacy.ir website in an interview.

Formal diplomatic ties with the U.A.E. could make it easier for Israel to spy on Iran, some Iranian media reports suggested, adding that the Jewish state could establish intelligence-gathering centers in Iran’s vicinity. The reports follow an unexplained explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility in July and a series of recent fires and explosions throughout the country that have led to speculation about an Israeli role.

Other reports suggested that Israel could work to disrupt commercial ties between Iran and the U.A.E., which is among the Islamic republic’s top trading partners, according to Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce.

“Tehran’s diplomacy has to make clear to the U.A.E. that it cannot regard a U.A.E. with ties with Israel with the same eyes as before,” another Tehran-based analyst, Seyed Hadi Borhani, was quoted as saying by Iranian media. He called Israel Tehran’s “most important enemy.”

He argued that Tehran should coordinate its response with other Arab and Islamic states while abstaining from taking unilateral action against the U.A.E.

Concerns about Iran are believed to have brought together Israel and the U.A.E., who have been quietly developing ties for years. The two countries announced last week that they would begin cooperating and normalizing ties in a deal brokered by the United States under which Israel has agreed to suspend its internationally opposed annexation of portions of the West Bank.

While he accused the U.A.E. of “betrayal,” former conservative Iranian lawmaker Ali Motahari also blamed Tehran in part for “the U.A.E.’s relationship with Israel.”

“We have frightened the Arabs and pushed them into Israeli arms,” the outspoken Motahari, who frequently criticizes official policy, said on Twitter.

Raz Zimmt, an Iran analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, predicted Tehran would increase its “subversive activities” against the U.A.E. in response to the deal with Israel and could even threaten U.A.E. oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Zimmt, however, added that Tehran is unlikely to take measures that would jeopardize its long-term relations with the U.A.E. “unless it feels that the implementation of the deal directly threatens Iranian security interests in the Gulf.”

In recent months, tensions have eased between Tehran and Abu Dhabi.

Following attacks last year on tankers near the Emirati port of Fujairah, the U.A.E. did not accuse Iran, despite Washington’s putting the blame squarely on Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in August that he had a “frank and friendly video conversation” with his Emirati counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed. He said the two sides had agreed to continue their dialogue, which he described as focused on COVID-19 and bilateral and regional ties.

More recently, the U.A.E. has sent several planes carrying medical supplies to bolster Tehran’s fight against the spread of COVID-19.

“The U.A.E. is a key trading partner of Iran and serves as a means in Iran’s efforts to circumvent the economic sanctions. The past year has actually seen an improvement in the political ties between Iran and the U.A.E. amid growing recognition in the U.A.E. concerning the limits of relying on the U.S. and in the wake of its failures in Yemen,” Zimmt told RFE/RL.

On August 16, the Emirati Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in Abu Dhabi in response to Rohani’s speech, in which the Iranian president accused the U.A.E. of committing a “treacherous act.”

It said the speech was “unacceptable and inflammatory and had serious implications for security and stability in the Gulf region.”

A day later, U.A.E. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that the agreement to normalize ties with Israel was not directed at Iran.

“The U.A.E.-Israeli peace treaty is a sovereign decision not directed at Iran. We say this and repeat it. We do not accept interference in our decisions,” Gargash tweeted.

If the agreement is signed, the U.A.E. will become the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, with diplomatic ties with Israel.

Iran does not recognize the state of Israel and is vocal in its public support of Palestinian groups.