Iran's Big Power Play: Bolstering Ties With Israel’s Partner

Iran has signed an economic cooperation deal with the United Arab Emirates under new President Ebrahim Raisi. Tehran’s goal to become a bigger player may also be what sets the timetable for the nuclear talks

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UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed on a visit to London in September.
UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed on a visit to London in September.Credit: Frank Augstein / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A busy week lies ahead for the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed. On Wednesday he’s scheduled to land in Turkey for his first meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This new alliance came about after many years of deep hostility, expressed for example in the 2017 statement by the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, that Turkey was more dangerous than Iran.

“We don’t want Turkey or Qatar to be able to shape a dinner menu, much less a country,” he reportedly wrote in an email to a New York Times columnist in 2017. This month Turkey, Iran and the UAE signed an important economic cooperation agreement under which goods will be sent from the UAE to Iran and then on to Turkey overland.

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The agreement is already worrying Egypt, concerned about a significant decrease in traffic through the Suez Canal. The new deal will shorten transport times from 20 days through the canal to a week.

This isn’t the first cooperation deal between the Emirates and Iran. Their 2019 military cooperation agreement aims to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, after the UAE quit the war in Yemen and left its partner there, Saudi Arabia, to wallow in the south-Arabian mire alone. Since then the UAE has enjoyed immunity from Houthi attacks on its ports and other targets.

During the week Prince Mohammed will spend in Turkey, discussing projects worth billions of dollars with Erdogan, his national security adviser (who happens to be his brother, Tahnoun bin Zayed) will visit Iran for the first time to consider expanding economic relations to full diplomatic ties.

Tahnoun, the power behind the throne in the kingdom and an avowed Brazilian jiujitsu aficionado, is his brother and sovereign’s envoy for special diplomatic missions. This included preparing the ground for renewing relations with Turkey, drafting the peace agreement with Israel and cultivating his country’s relations with China, Russia, the United States and recently Syria.

One may expect the UAE ruler to visit Tehran next, ending the Arab anti-Iran coalition formed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi Prince Mohammed, by the way, won’t be aghast at these moves by his Emirati colleague, as Saudi Arabia has already held three rounds of talks with senior Iranian officials in Baghdad.

A tightening of ties with the Gulf states is a pillar of Iranian foreign policy as announced by President Ebrahim Raisi shortly after his election in June. Nor is it disconnected from the talks scheduled to begin on November 29 on reviving the nuclear deal. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states will have to cooperate more closely once Iran returns to the global oil market, when Tehran will want to reclaim former major clients like India and South Korea, and its largest client, China.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressing parliament this week.Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP

IAEA chief heading to Tehran

The diplomatic moves by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may indicate Iran’s intentions regarding the nuclear deal, which it needs to realize the economic and diplomatic benefits from normalized relations with its neighbors.

While it has been five months since negotiations between the Western powers and Iran were suspended due to the Iranian presidential election, and three months since Raisi took office, it seems the working assumption in Israel, the United States and Europe – that Iran wouldn’t come back to the table and doesn’t want to renew the nuclear deal – no longer rests on firm ground.

Iran’s interest in returning to the agreement remains unchanged. That doesn’t mean the negotiations will be quick or easy. This week the government website Iran Daily published comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri-Kani, who heads the Iranian negotiating team. He said that “the talks will not be about the nuclear issue, which has already been resolved,” adding that the negotiations would center around the lifting of the sanctions.

This isn’t really news, as even before talks were suspended in June, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and then-President Hassan Rohani declared that the negotiations were nearly over. Rohani also hinted that the regime was the one delaying the signing of a new nuclear deal, apparently for political reasons. The comments were made on the eve of the presidential election, and it seems Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was trying to decide whether to award the achievement to Rohani or his successor.

It seems the technical issues have been agreed on and Iran will not only freeze the current situation, which includes significant violations, but will return to the situation after the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, since September Iran has enriched around 17.7 kilograms (39 pounds) of uranium to 60 percent purity, as opposed to 3.67 percent allowed under the deal. Iran is also believed to be using advanced centrifuges at Fordow, also in violation of the deal.

The problem is that the agency’s inspectors can’t ascertain the scale of enrichment due to Iran’s ban on inspectors at sites. IAEA chief Rafael Grossi is scheduled to arrive in Iran on Monday to reach a new deal on monitoring, almost the last minute before the IAEA meets to discuss monitoring and sanctions to be imposed if Iran continues to prevent full oversight.

According to statements from Iran, Tehran wants a guarantee from the United States that no future U.S. administration will withdraw from the deal, and that a special mechanism will oversee the lifting of sanctions. The problem, of course, is that the Biden administration can’t make commitments on behalf of future presidents. The nuclear deal is defined as an “agreement” and not a “treaty,” which would require confirmation by two-thirds of the Senate and be binding from one administration to the next.

But even Joe Biden’s willingness to lift U.S. sanctions linked to a nuclear deal doesn’t suffice for Iran, which demands the removal of sanctions against individuals and companies in place due to the country’s human rights violations and support for terrorism. This raises another constitutional obstacle, as lifting these sanctions requires special legislation beyond the sole wishes of the president.

Also, articles in the Iranian media have called on Raisi to demand that Biden apologize for America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and compensate Iran for the damages caused by the sanctions still in place. To the Iranians, Biden’s statements that Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement was a mistake doesn’t count as an apology, and Washington has no intention of paying compensation.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in Michigan on Tuesday.Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Bold plans

As for oversight of the lifting of sanctions, Iran demands certainty that the United States won’t establish an indirect sanctions regime such as pressuring third countries not to trade with Iran, thus emptying the lifting of sanctions of any real meaning.

Iran worries, for instance, that in the diplomatic spat between the United States and China, Washington will impose sanctions on China if Beijing follows through on its economic agreement with Iran under which China will invest some $400 billion over 25 years. But it’s doubtful that Iran has reasons to fear violations if a new nuclear deal is signed by Biden, or of him imposing indirect sanctions.

Iran has also learned that it can’t rely on the other signatories to the nuclear deal, especially the European countries, which despite their anger at Trump’s withdrawal failed to establish a mechanism to keep the agreement in effect without the United States. Plus multinational corporations left Iran shortly after the United States quit the deal, and the alternative funding mechanism in euros, proposed and already  implemented in part by France, didn’t give the Europeans protection from an American reprisal. In the meantime, Iran’s longtime clients stopped buying oil from it, and even China reduced its orders.

In any case, it’s not yet clear if Tehran intends to negotiate for show and increase its stash of enriched uranium, or speed up the negotiating process à la the six rounds of talks from April to June.

The answer lies not only in Iran’s urgent financial needs. For decades the country has been living under a sanctions regime – over three years under Trump’s “maximum pressure” – which failed to topple the regime. Iran, with aspirations to be a regional power, is a country whose president attended a conference of Eurasian countries in Tajikistan instead of the UN General Assembly. It’s a country negotiating a strategic cooperation deal with Russia along the lines of its agreement with China. It’s aiming far beyond economic survival.

So not only must it break the bonds of sanctions, it must lift their threat from the countries around which Iran would become a regional power. This strategic consideration has become much more realistic now that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the countries visiting Tehran, and it may also be what sets the timetable for the nuclear talks.

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