UAE spymaster in Iran to improve ties

The United Arab Emirates’ national security adviser met Iranian leaders in Tehran on Monday in the first official visit by a senior Emirati politician to the Islamic republic in almost a decade as the two countries seek a de-escalation of tensions.

Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani voiced hope that the visit by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed — the UAE’s spymaster and one of the Gulf monarchy’s most influential figures — would open “a new chapter” in bilateral relations.

“Having warm and friendly relations with neighbours and exchanging economic, trade and investment capacities are Iran’s top priorities in foreign policy,” Shamkhani said in his meeting with Sheikh Tahnoon. “Dialogue should replace military approaches to tackle differences [among regional states],” Shamkhani added.

The coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic impact, coupled with US president Joe Biden’s election and his administration’s desire to reduce tensions in the region, have in recent months pushed leaders in the Middle East to rethink their foreign policies and led to regional rivals cautiously re-engaging with each other.

Relations between the UAE and Iran deteriorated after Iranian vigilantes attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest against the kingdom’s execution of a senior Shia cleric. In January 2016, the UAE summoned home its ambassador in Tehran. A 2019 attack on oil tankers off the coast of UAE that the US blamed on Iran prompted the UAE to reconsider. It feared it would become a target of Iranian aggression as the US ramped up pressure on Tehran. Sheikh Tahnoon made a secret visit that year to Tehran to ease tensions between Iran and the UAE, an important US ally in the region.

Monday’s official visit takes place in the context of slow progress at indirect talks between Iran and the Biden administration in Vienna to resurrect the nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers. It collapsed in 2018 after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew and launched a “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. Suffering under US sanctions, the hardline government of Ebrahim Raisi — which took over in August — wants to improve diplomatic and economic ties with the region.

“The Emiratis are clearly positioning themselves as regional interlocutors between the Gulf states and Iran, the US and Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House.

Sheikh Tahnoon was likely to be delivering messages from the US and others, while offering financial incentives, including investment and better relations with the rest of the Gulf states, Vakil said.

The UAE has prioritised de-escalation as it seeks to recover from the pandemic and fast-track the diversification of its oil-reliant economy. It has withdrawn troops from Yemen, stepped back from the Libyan civil war, ended the embargo of neighbouring Qatar and eased strained ties with Turkey.

It is not clear how close Iran and the UAE are now to restoring full diplomatic ties. But trade is expected to reach the highest level in a decade this year. During the first eight months of this Iranian year (March 21-Nov 21), the UAE was the top source for Iran’s imports with $10.1bn worth of goods, according to Iran’s official figures. The Gulf state is also the fourth biggest destination for Iran’s non-oil exports with $2.9bn worth of goods.

“The Islamic republic of Iran is determined to use the UAE as a regional hub to increase its trade and exports with other countries,” said Farshid Farzanegan, a management board member of the Iran-UAE chamber of commerce. “UAE officials are pursuing trade regardless of politics.”

Relations with Saudi Arabia — Iran’s main regional rival — may take longer to return to normality. While four rounds of Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia this year have not yet resulted in a restoration of relations, tensions have decreased.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday visited Oman, the first port of call on a tour of all five other Gulf states, including Qatar, in his first visit since ending an embargo on the gas-rich state earlier this year. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, also on Monday embarked on a two-day visit to close regional ally Qatar.

A person briefed on the visits said there were talks taking place in the hope of setting up a meeting between Erdogan and Prince Mohammed in Doha, but added that nothing had been confirmed. It would be the first between the two leaders since Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul three years ago. Erdogan is due to fly out of Doha on Wednesday, the day Prince Mohammed is expected to arrive.

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