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Israel-UAE deal: Iran and Turkey must form a united front

A stronger strategic relationship would be able to keep Israel and the UAE in check - and keep the Palestinian aspiration for statehood alive
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (L) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AFP)

The UAE-Israel peace agreement, which was formalised on Tuesday, will have a massive impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East in the long term.  

Framed primarily as a counter against Iranian influence in the region, the first peace deal between Israel and an Arab Gulf country goes much further than that. Unlike Israel’s previous peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, which remained at the formal state level and did not enable a deeper penetration of society, the rapprochement with the UAE brings Israel into the heart of the region.

By developing political, economic and cultural capital in the UAE, Israel potentially gains the ability to influence events across the region, in relation to Yemen, other Gulf states, and even Iraq.

Strategic alliance

In that context, the deal is very bad news for Turkey and Qatar, the two states at the forefront of developing an alternative ideological-security regional architecture distinct from the conservatism of other Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance. 

To prevent the UAE-Israel alignment from gaining game-changing strategic momentum in the years ahead, Iran, Turkey and Qatar will have to work more closely together, aligning not only their politics and economies, but crucially their strategic postures as well.

There is little doubt that Iran has the most to lose from the UAE-Israel rapprochement - even more than the Palestinians

Turkey views Iran as a regional rival, but this mindset will have to change; otherwise, an alliance between Arab conservatism and Israeli expansionism may well establish a strategic advantage in the not-too-distant future. 

There is little doubt that Iran has the most to lose from the UAE-Israel rapprochement - even more than the Palestinians. Despite Emirati protestations that the deal is not aimed at Iran, the Islamic Republic has identified the deal as a major threat to its regional strategic interests.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued a strongly worded statement describing the deal as “historical foolishness” and “clear treason”, noting that it would accelerate Israel’s “annihilation”. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei echoed these sentiments, lambasting Emirati leaders for their “treason” and expressing confidence that the deal “will not last long”.  

Deep anxiety in Tehran

Iran’s immediate fear is of a domino effect across the Gulf with small states like Bahrain - and perhaps Oman - following the UAE’s lead in normalising ties with Israel. This would intensify Iran’s feeling of encirclement, especially in the context of the US “maximum pressure” campaign, which seeks to alter Iran’s regional behaviour on terms dictated by Washington.  

In the mid to long term, Iran is fearful of extensive Israeli penetration in the region in a wide range of areas, from energy and petroleum, to political interference and intelligence cooperation

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Underscoring the deep anxiety in Tehran, Iran’s army chief of staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, warned the UAE that Iran’s “approach” to the Emirates would change in light of the agreement with Israel. In a forceful statement, he said that Iran would hold Emirati leaders “responsible” if its national security is damaged as a result of the agreement.  

The key question at this juncture is what Iran plans to do to undercut the deal and mitigate its potentially adverse effects, notably in the defence and security spheres. Iran will undoubtedly apply greater pressure on both Israel and the UAE to make them think twice before embarking on major joint security and defence projects.

Applying pressure on Israel is easier, as demonstrated by Iran’s encirclement of Israel from the north, via its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, and from the south, via Palestinian armed groups. Applying pressure on the UAE is harder, not least because Iran has diplomatic ties to the Emirates and there is already a bilateral dispute over three islands in the Gulf.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of Iranians live in the UAE, particularly in Dubai, thus creating leverage and constraints for both countries - and underscoring the bigger reality that no matter what happens, the two countries need to stay engaged.  

Shared political interests

Iran could undercut the UAE-Israel agreement by reaching out to the two states with which it shares some political, strategic and even ideological interests. Both Turkey and Qatar will be adversely affected by the UAE-Israel rapprochement.

Turkey is especially incensed, as it is already embroiled in a proxy war with the UAE in Libya. Turkey is also at loggerheads with the UAE in Syria. Turkish officials have accused the UAE of financial and logistical support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northeastern Syria.

Ankara and Abu Dhabi have also clashed over Qatar, which the UAE, in tandem with Saudi Arabia, has sought to isolate since June 2017. Needless to say, there is no love lost between Doha and Abu Dhabi.  

Palestinians protest the Israel-UAE deal in Nablus on 14 August (AFP)
Palestinians protest the Israel-UAE deal in Nablus on 14 August (AFP)

Besides their shared political interests, Turkey and Qatar are ideological compatriots, insofar as their political outlooks and strategic visions share sympathy to varying degrees with Muslim Brotherhood ideology. While they have yet to develop coherent and sustainable joint structures to advance their policies in the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey and Qatar often act in concert, notably in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Libya.

By contrast, Iran has a highly developed vehicle to promote its ideological project, political interests and strategic vision across the region. The Axis of Resistance - which brings together Iran, Syria (and to a lesser extent Iraq), and a wide range of sub-state forces including Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis - is by far the most dynamic regional strategic force.

Long-term projects

Notwithstanding the Axis of Resistance’s continuing momentum, there is now every danger that it could run into major obstacles - potentially insurmountable ones - as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE muster all their resources to counter Iran.

In their current state, Turkey and Qatar cannot hope to upset the balance of power vis-a-vis the conservative Arab Gulf states and Egypt. The best that can be achieved in regards to proxy flashpoints, notably Libya, is a stalemate.

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Iran, Qatar and Turkey have already demonstrated the ability to work on long-term projects. Iran and Qatar, for instance, have pooled their resources and expertise in developing the South Pars/North Dome offshore natural gas project. As for Iran and Turkey, the two countries have a long history of strong bilateral ties - and despite recent tensions over Syria, their relationship remains relatively stable. 

Yet, if all three countries want to avoid becoming sidelined by conservative Arab states, Israel and the US, they need to set aside their differences and diplomatic inertia by placing their joint relationship on a strategic plane.

That will make all the difference, not only in terms of keeping the UAE and Israel in check, but also in terms of keeping the Palestinian aspiration for statehood alive.    

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mahan Abedin
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle Eastern politics. He is the author of Iran Resurgent: The rise and rise of the Shia state. He tweets @MahanAbedin.