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Faced With U.S. Threats, Iran Warms Up to Arab Neighbors – Even Riyadh

Trump has an opportunity for a far better 'Deal of the Century'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Houthi rebel fighter fires in the air during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the their movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.
A Houthi rebel fighter fires in the air during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters for the their movement, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.Credit: Hani Mohammed,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The picture of the commander of the United Arab Emirates Coast Guard, Gen. Mohammed Al-Ahbabi, happily shaking hands with his Iranian colleague, Gen. Qassem Rezaei, during their meeting in Tehran last week caused shockwaves in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This meeting, at which a cooperation agreement on maritime security in the Gulf was signed, is the latest surprising expression of a turnabout in the UAE’s relationship with Iran.

First, Abu Dhabi announced a “redeployment” of its forces in Yemen, where it is Riyadh’s main partner in the war against the Houthis. In practice, this means a reduction of its forces there.

The UAE insisted that it wasn’t withdrawing completely, and that all its moves are coordinated with Riyadh. But then the Houthis’ commanders announced that they’ve decided to stop attacking UAE targets on both land and sea in light of the country’s changed policy. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, remains a Houthi target.

Soldiers at the scene of the blast after a deadly missile attack on a military parade during a graduation ceremony for newly recruited troopers in Aden, Yemen, August 1, 2019. Credit: Fawaz Salman / Reuters

>> Why Saudi Arabia and UAE bicker as Yemen is torn to pieces

At first glance, the UAE seems to have concluded that its shared war with the Saudis in Yemen is pointless, economically damaging and, above all, liable to create conflicts with the U.S. Congress, as has already happened to Saudi Arabia. But is this really an independent decision that constitutes a “betrayal” of Riyadh and an end to the countries’ military alliance?

Riyadh has recently hinted heavily that it’s willing to negotiate with Iran. Two weeks ago, its UN ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said that even though Iran’s behavior is liable to undermine international peace and stability, “We stress that we’re willing to have relations of full cooperation between the Arab states and Iran, on two fundamental conditions: that this cooperation be based on good neighborliness, and nonintervention by Iran in other countries’ internal affairs, while respecting their sovereignty.”

This was a new tone from Riyadh, and was greeted accordingly in Tehran. “We welcome these statements, and we think they should also be accompanied by actions,” said an Iranian government spokesman, Ali Rabiei. “We have always called for stability and security for the region’s states and we respect bilateral relationships and security agreements.”

This public exchange between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes as Washington is trying to forge its own diplomatic track with Tehran. According to the New Yorker, U.S. President Donald Trump invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to meet with him at the White House, but Tehran rejected the invitation, saying it doesn’t want to give Trump a photo op for public relations purposes.

Nevertheless, the two might still meet during the UN General Assembly next month, if progress is made in the talks Senator Rand Paul is conducting on Trump’s behalf with Zarif and other senior Iranian officials, as well as in the talks Iran is holding with European signatories to the nuclear deal.

Tribal gunmen loyal to the Yemeni Huthi movement during a gathering to show their support to the Shiite fighters against the Saudi-led intervention, north of the capital Sanaa, August 1, 2019. Credit: AFP

Both Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Zarif said that on September 7, Iran will implement stage three of its gradual withdrawal from its obligations under that deal, though they didn’t specify what this will entail. But in the same breath, Rohani said that Iran was negotiating with the deal’s other signatories in an effort to find a mutually acceptable solution, and he hopes an agreement will be reached by September 7.

If so, Iran would be willing to immediately implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which was supposed to go into effect in 2023). This protocol allows for closer and more frequent monitoring of the nuclear facilities covered by the nuclear deal. For now, Washington has rejected this offer. But given Trump’s declared desire to launch a diplomatic process, a more flexible version of the Iranian offer might serve as a basis for new negotiations.

Paul’s talks with Iran and the White House invitation to Zarif should seemingly have provoked a sharp response from Saudi Arabia. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, has apparently also concluded that the war in Yemen is too expensive, both diplomatically and militarily, and it’s better to switch to diplomatic channels.

Ending the war in Yemen could restore his status in Washington, where he has become a pariah, and extricate his country from its military failure during four years of fighting. And the possibility of a military conflict between America, Israel and Iran doesn’t cause him any joy; he has repeatedly expressed opposition to a new war in the region.

To bolster its diplomatic overtures, Riyadh recently released an Iranian tanker that had been detained in the port of Jiddah for months, despite Iran’s “policing operations” in the Persian Gulf, during which it seized two tankers. On Sunday, Iran seized yet another foreign tanker, claiming it was engaged in oil smuggling.

File photo: Emirati soldiers stand guard out the rear gate of a Chinook military helicopter traveling from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, September 14, 2015. Credit: Adam Schreck / AP

Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a former adviser to the UAE’s crown prince who remains close to the country’s government, recently said, “The war in Yemen has ended from the UAE’s perspective; all that’s left is to announce it officially.” Granted, he holds no official position and doesn’t represent the government, but his statement seems to reflect the views not only of Abu Dhabi, but also of Riyadh.

Trump now has the opportunity for a “deal of the century” with a better chance of success than the one he has proposed for Israel and the Palestinians. If the leader of North Korea has become his dear friend, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei is surely an even more important asset.

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