Iran’s relations with neighbouring Arab states have experienced many ups and downs in recent years. Qatar and Oman have mostly had good relations with Iran, but those with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been tense.
Boosting ties with neighbouring states has been a foreign policy priority for most Iranian governments since the revolution, but this has faced many challenges. Last month, at the World Policy Conference in Dubai, the UAE’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs and former foreign minister Anwar Gargash stressed the UAE’s will to resolve tensions with Iran and Turkey through dialogue to avoid a new confrontation in the region.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the overall reduction of its presence and role in the Middle East have led to the beginning of a new era. China is the major priority in US foreign policy for President Joe Biden. Insecurity in the region, especially along the main oil-energy transit routes, is not in the interests of any Middle East country.
In the first seven months of this year, the balance of trade between Iran and the UAE reached a record low of about $6 billion. This is important because the UAE has been one of the main gateways for the export of Iranian goods. The value of goods imported from the UAE to Iran in the first seven months of this year was $8.6bn, an increase of 82 per cent over the same period last year. According to the head of the Iran-UAE Joint Chamber of Commerce, during the same period, the value of goods exported from Iran to the UAE was $2.6bn, an increase of only 12 per cent compared with 2020. Imports to the UAE from Iran tend to be in transit en route to other countries.
Since May 2018, when the US withdrew unilaterally from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran, and re-imposed sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Tehran’s trade relations with major trading partners such as China, South Korea, the UAE and India have also been disrupted. As a result, Iranian exports in 2019 fell to $41.4bn from $43.7bn.
The outcome of the nuclear talks and a new agreement between Iran and the US will play an important role in Tehran’s relations with neighbouring countries. However, the possibility of reaching an agreement in the Vienna talks has become more difficult.
In recent weeks, the head of the US State Department’s Iran desk, Robert Malley, has travelled to the Middle East to exchange views with regional countries. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri used Twitter to refer to his visit to Dubai on 24 November where, he said, “We agreed on a new page in Iran-UAE relations.”Gargash’s remarks noted above have played an important role in easing tension between Iran and the UAE. He has also pointed out, though, that neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia believe that the nuclear deal will cover Iran’s missile programme and its foreign policy and support for proxies in the region.
The hijacking and attacks on several oil tankers have accompanied attacks on the energy infrastructure of countries in the region. Iran was said to have seized a UAE-owned ship and detained its crew. Security is in the interest of energy exporters and importers alike. If a new nuclear deal is agreed upon, Iran will need security in the region more than ever to increase its oil exports. Maintaining regional security and stability is one of the issues on which both Iran and the UAE agree.
Following the historic normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel last year, harsh words were spoken by Iranian officials. The then President Hassan Rouhani called the “Abraham Accords” a betrayal of the national interests of countries in the region and viewed it as serving Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. Ibrahim Ra’isi, the then head of the judiciary in Iran, also called normalisation a “betrayal of Islam” and a “betrayal of Palestine”, and threatened the UAE. “If something happens in the Persian Gulf region and the national security of the Islamic Republic of Iran is damaged, however small, we will see it through the eyes of the United Arab Emirates and we will not tolerate it,” added Iran’s Chief of General Staff Mohammad Bagheri.
Efforts to improve Iran’s relations with neighbouring countries face serious challenges, including its foreign policy and continued support for proxy groups. The UAE’s Gargash, referring to his country’s reluctance to confront Iran, said last month that it remains deeply concerned about Iran’s behaviour in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Nevertheless, the UAE is taking steps to defuse the situation.
Regional security and stability are not possible without the cooperation of the countries in the Middle East. It is in their national interests for Iran and the UAE to ease the tension between them. It will help if a nuclear deal is agreed upon. Meanwhile, the UAE will continue its relations with Israel within the framework of its specific national interests.
However, some problems will not be resolved in the short term, such as the disputed islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, which Iran has occupied since 1971. Iranian support for its proxies in the region will also be a sticking point. Opening a new chapter in relations between Abu Dhabi and Tehran will, however, be a positive starting point which, with goodwill on both sides, can be developed further. In any case, a change in foreign policy is essential if normal relations are to result.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.