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Will Iran Escalate Against the Gulf Following the Latter’s Openness to Israel?

US President announced Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates on 13 August and with Bahrain on 11 September. Since then the tone of Iranian statements has been escalating, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declaring his rejection of the Israel-UAE agreement. 

Iranian Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri, said “Tehran’s approach to the UAE will change.” Major General Ali Fadawi, Deputy Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned against the repercussions of cooperating with Israel, saying his country would not allow the region’s gates to be opened to Israel. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also condemned the normalization agreement between Bahrain and Israel. 

Iran’s statements raise questions about the effect of the Gulf-Israel rapprochement on Iran and its possible retaliatory moves.

Iran’s concerns

There are several reasons Iran fears Gulf-Israel rapprochement.

  • Security and political fears

Iran fears other Gulf countries will follow in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain. Indeed, it is expected more Gulf countries will sign normalization deals with Israel. Iran believes the deals threaten its national security and influence in the region. Moreover, Azerbaijan, Iran’s northern neighbour, is an ally to Israel, which means Iran may be under a political siege.

Tehran realizes that these agreements will give Israel a foothold in the region. Iranian analysists fear the Israeli-UAE agreement might at a later stage allow the establishment of an Israeli military base opposite Iran on Gulf coasts, where most of Iran’s oil fields, ports and nuclear reactors are located. This might facilitate spying on Iran due to the close proximity of the UAE.

  • Concerns about economic competition with Israel

Iran’s economic concerns are compounded in light of the economic pressures it is facing due to the US sanctions and the repercussions of the coronavirus crisis. These concerns are deepened, according to the Iranian Financial Tribune newspaper, as the UAE was announced the second largest export destination to Iran from March to August 2020. During that period, Iran exported to the UAE 1.77 million tons of goods, worth $2.66 billion. Trade between the two countries reached 9.48 million tons of non-oil goods, worth $6.16 billion. Iran’s exports to the UAE reached 7.71 million tons, valued at $3.49 billion.

Dubai is a hub for foreign Iranian businesses. According to Jadehiran website, there are 3,000 Iranian companies in the UAE. Iran fears the UAE agreement with Israel will have a negative effect on its economic relations with the Gulf country since Israel may compete with Iranian companies in the UAE market and the UAE may strike business deals with Israel instead of Iran.  

The UAE is seeking to decrease tensions in the region in general and in the Gulf in particular. An evidence of this is when the UAE Coastguard head Brigadier General Mohammed Ali Misbah Al-Ahbabi visited Tehran in July 2019 and met his Iranian counterpart, the Commander of Iranian Coastguard Brigadier General Qasim Rezaei, with the aim of joint coordination to preserve the safety of maritime trade. This came despite the fact the UAE downgraded its diplomatic ties with Iran since January 2016, due to the escalated tensions between the KSA and Iran after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. 

In August, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke with the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan via video call about the coronavirus and other undisclosed issues. All these efforts reflect the UAE’s openness to promote joint cooperation in all fields with all parties. 

Although Iran threatens to adopt a different policy towards the UAE, evidence shows that it is only using propaganda to save the regime’s face before its supporters. Hostility against Israel is one of the ideological bases on which the Iranian regime relies to mobilize the interior and spread its ideology in the region. During the coming stage, trade between the two countries is likely to continue. The head of the Iran-UAE joint chamber of commerce released a statement in August regarding the improvement of economic relations between the two countries, asserting the UAE is Iran’s second largest economic partner. 

Possible Iranian reactions

Iran may adopt one of the following scenarios in reaction to the normalisation deals:

  • Promoting alternative alliances: 

Iran might seek to promote alternative alliances. In light of the economic and political internal crises that Iran and Turkey currently face, it was not surprising that both countries used the agreement as a tool to increase their regimes’ support, by opposing and condemning the Gulf-Israeli normalization agreements. In addition, the current situation shall exacerbate the two countries’ isolation in the region, which will lead to rapprochement between them that goes in line with their policies. Despite the disagreement between Shias and Sunnis, the two regimes’ security and geopolitical interests overshadow their sectarian differences to achieve their regional goals.

This was evident in the similar statements both countries issued. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposed the normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. He also threatened to sever diplomatic ties with the UAE and close its embassy in Turkey. The coming stage might witness more Iranian support for Turkey’s militias and the Government of National Accord in Libya against the Libyan National Army and its allies. It might also witness the continuation of Turkish cooperation with Iran despite the sanctions. 

Iran might also move forward in its strategic partnership with China. Some documents regarding this partnership were earlier leaked. However, there are doubts it will take place due to Iranian criticisms that this partnership will negatively affect Iran’s sovereignty. Cooperation between Tehran and Beijing comes within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative that includes infrastructure development and projects that extend to Central Asia, and from the Arabian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. This is what Iran might see as its last resort to compensate for its eroding influence in the region. 

  • Insisting on pursuing the nuclear program: 

Foreign Policy magazine said the Arab normalization agreements with Israel might increase the repercussions of the US economic sanctions imposed on Tehran, in light of the US “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. Promoting cooperation between Arabs, the US and Israel will lead to impeding many of the secret financial channels that Iran uses to circumvent the US sanctions.

The current Gulf-Israel normalization agreements promote Trump’s image as a peacemaker in the region, which enhances his position during the coming presidential elections. For Iran, Joe Biden is the perfect alternative. Biden’s win might lead to easing tensions against Iran and getting back to the nuclear program. If Trump wins in the elections, the “maximum pressure” policy will continue to weaken the Iranian economy and increase internal tensions against the regime. 

In this case, Iran might insist on implementing its nuclear program, adopting the policy of “brinkmanship”, and use the method of military escalation to threaten its regional and international opponents with the aim of pushing them to the negotiating table. This can be seen in the current European position in opposition to Washington’s attempt to activate the “Snapback” mechanism to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. 

  • Military escalation and political provocations:

In case the US sells F-35s to the UAE, Iran may pressure Russia to sell it advanced defense weapons, such as the S-400.  Iran is also expected to continue harassing the UAE and Saudi oil tankers and use drones just as it did in the KSA in September 2019 to attack Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq. 

Iran may also incite demonstrations and instability in Bahrain and other countries, where its supporters and armed militias are present, to pressure their regimes. It may back the Houthis in Yemen to have more supporters against Arab Coalition countries, on the pretext of resisting the Israeli occupation and defending the Palestinian cause.

Although Iran opposes the Gulf’s openness to Israel, the UAE, due to its agreement with Israel, may be able to mediate between Iran and Israel and the US. This scenario may unlikely take place in the short term. It is not far-fetched, however, in light of the UAE’s diplomatic efforts to ease tension and escalation in the region and to promote cooperation, and amid the increasing pressures on Iran, the collapse of its national currency, and economic decline, as well as the increasing number of countries that may follow in the UAE’s footsteps.

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