On 6 December, the UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed visited Tehran upon the invitation of Secretary-General of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, where he met with high-ranking Iranian officials, most notably President Ebrahim Raisi.
During the visit, the Iranian media highlighted not only the promising future of Iranian-Emirati bilateral relations on multiple fronts, but also the need for Iran’s close cooperation with regional countries towards achieving lasting security and stability, as Shamkhani put it. The visit was a success at several levels, to the extent that the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) described –in a news report presented the day of the visit– the relations between Abu Dhabi and Tehran as being “of special relevance” and “well on track for mutual understanding and good-neighborly relations”, expecting further expansion of these relations.
The outcomes of the visit raised aspirations of both sides and the UAE invited the Iranian president for an official visit. However, few weeks after the visit, Houthis, i.e. Iran’s agent in Yemen, started launching attacks on Emirates, intensifying terrorist attacks on the UAE, the latest of which was the Abu Dhabi attack on 31 January 2022. This raises serious questions as why the Houthis attacked the UAE not too long after the visit of a prominent UAE security official to Tehran. Has Iran changed its “looking East” approach all of a sudden, or are there new developments?
Indeed, these attacks have multiple motivations and perhaps they could explain Iran’s shift from rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to aggression on their territories.
Victories of Giants Brigades Unveil Houthis’ Weakness on the Ground
In tandem with victories of Giants Brigades (GB) in Yemen over the past weeks, the Houthis have intensified attacks on UAE soil last January. After notching up victories in the western coast of Yemen, GB pro-Yemeni government forces advanced towards liberating cities and districts from the Houthis in Shabwah Governorate, under the “South Tornado” operation, launched at the beginning of 2022, and managed to liberate cities of Al-Naqoub and Usaylan in Shabwah and started advancing towards the city of Al-Olaya in Bajan.
Besides these military successes, GB operations demonstrated their qualitative supremacy in Yemen. In many respects, these accomplishments were a testimony to the weakness of the Houthis in the field relative to the high organization and military experience of the GB forces backed by the Arab coalition supporting the legitimate government in Yemen.
The Houthi impotence was evident in statements of Muhammad Al-Ghamari, the Houthi Military Chief of General Staff on Thursday 4 February 2022, in which he seemingly tried to raise the moral spirit of the Houthis after the strikes they received following the advance of the Giants Brigades Al-Ghamari claimed that the Houthis had a “strategic deterrent weapon” to confront the Arab Coalition supporting GB forces, highlighting that future transformations will be worse if the Houthis continue to receive defeats (which he never explicitly made talk of). An analysis of messages and threats of Al-Ghamari, who is included in US lists of terrorists, we can understand why the Houthis are attacking the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, the Houthi attacks on the UAE served as messages to Abu Dhabi and GB forces to stop advancing on the various Yemeni fronts, particularly Shabwah, which is overlooking the Arabian Sea and its coasts and is of a particular importance due to its vital natural resources, including the oil fields and two strategic ports for the export of oil and gas.
Iran Outlines its Future Relations with the UAE
While the recent attacks of the Houthis on the UAE and Saudi Arabia are closely linked to the advancement of the GB, they may be, however, related to Iran’s approach to framing its future relations with the UAE and the Arab Gulf states. Tehran views –as its official media reports– that the UAE plays a rival role in the region and it wishes to limit this role in its favor. In this vein, the US withdrawal from the Middle East is a critical factor that shouldn’t be ignored as it would work up Tehran’s appetite to further strengthen its role in the region through collaboration with close international powers. Towards that, Iran works to curb the role of other powers such as the UAE and restrict in the future.
For Iran, this strategy doesn’t contradict with its “Look East” policy, which is based on limiting the role of regional powers and developing relations with them at the same time while promoting collaboration with other powers. As such, this strategy is associated with Iran’s desire to pressure the UAE and Saudi Arabia simultaneously with holding talks with them. This is akin to Iran’s pressures in the Vienna negotiations, meaning Iran may plan such attacks from behind to achieve future political gains in negotiations with the Gulf States, in case they are resumed later.
Iran’s Direct Talks with the US
Tracking the path of the Iranian President’s foreign trips since he came to power last August would reveal Iran’s preparedness on the political, economic, and military levels to deal with the post-nuclear agreement phase, the negotiations of which are being conducted in Vienna since months.
Currently, Iran is in the process of defining its future approach, which will seemingly be characterized by a steady and more extensive moves at the regional level governed by several factors, including the expected economic outcomes of the nuclear agreement and repercussions of the US withdrawal from the region.
In addition to Iran’s desire to limit the UAE’s role as an active regional player, the Houthis’ attacks, which came in the wake of the victories of BG forces, are intended at sending messages to the region that the Arab Coalition must stop its progress and be prepared to accept a broader Iranian role in the future in Yemen.
In addition, if we consider the Vienna nuclear negotiations, it becomes clear that Iran-backed Houthi attacks on the UAE are aimed at influencing the course of the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the major powers. Tehran believes that such attacks will pressure the European and US negotiators to accept fewer Iranian concessions.
Perhaps the timing of these attacks, coming directly before prospective talks between the US and Iran –maybe under Qatari mediation– reinforces this trend.
The Houthis’ Attacks and the Future of Iran’s “Looking East” Policy
The Houthi attacks made it clear that a rapprochement with Iran, given the current conditions in the region, will only be possible in the presence of collective frameworks and comprehensive guarantees. The persistent presence of Iran in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, among others, makes the possibility of Tehran’s rapprochement with some countries in the region uncertain, requiring answers to questions such as, “How will Iran move regionally in parallel with rapprochement with Neighbors?” and “Will Iran’s moves affect its neighbors?” Overall, rapprochement with Iran requires developing a special approach.
On the other hand, in the wake of the Houthi attacks, the UAE endeavored to strengthen its army and military defenses. Several countries condemned the Houthis’ terrorist attacks on the UAE, underscoring the UAE’s right to defend its people and lands and expressing readiness for military cooperation with Abu Dhabi, particularly with regard to the protection of its airspace. For instance, the French Minister of Defense, Florence Parly, tweeted, “The UAE was victim of serious attacks on its territory in January. In order to show our solidarity with this friendly country, France has decided to provide military support, in particular to protect the airspace against any intrusion.” Likewise, Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, expressed his solidarity with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in the face of the Houthi attacks, saying, “We of course stand with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and our Gulf partners in defending against threats to their peoples and their territories”
In short, Raisi’s “Looking East” policy will require additional efforts in the future if Iran seeks to mend its relations with Gulf neighbors.