By Majid Izadpanahi*
On August 13, 2020, US President Donald Trump announced the signing of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-Israel deal, also known as the Abraham Accord. The UAE is the third Arab state (after Egypt and Jordan), and the first Arab state of the Persian Gulf, to sign a peace treaty with Israel. At this juncture, it is essential to understand Iran’s opposition of the deal and the deal’s possible implications for Tehran.
Iran’s Stances vis-à-vis Israel and Arab States
Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran managed balancing good relations with Israel and Arab states. Iran was the second Muslim majority country (after Turkey) to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Tehran also had cordial relations with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Iraq, albeit there were times when limited competing nationalism (with Egypt) or brief territorial disputes (with the UAE and Iraq) cast a shadow over relations between Iran and the Arab states.
However, Tehran’s post 1979 regime has followed a rigid policy in West Asia. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Trotskyite policy based on exporting the revolution has damaged relations between Iran and Arab states. From the Arab states’ vantage point, the Iran is a threat to their internal security seeking to overthrow their governments. Moreover, Tehran’s new Shia regime’s ambition of leading the Muslim world has added an ideological dimension to the tension, Shiism vs Sunniism.
Vis-à-vis Tel Aviv, Ayatollah Khomeini called for “wiping Israel off the world map,” which became former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oft-repeated slogan; the cornerstone of Tehran’s approach towards Israel; and one of the main cause of Iran-US tensions. Tehran’s involvement in Arab world disputes and its continuous support ofanti-Israeli groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas has pushed Arabs and Israelis together due to their perception of a common threat from the Islamic Republic. Turkey’s engagement in West Asian conflicts as well as its issues with Israel and the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership has raised concerns in Tel Aviv and among Arab states that view Iran and Turkey as imperialist forces.
Iran’s intransigent policy towards the states in the region has engendered a vicious circle of ideological and security rivalry. Now, Tehran’s concerns over UAE-Israel deal have prompted political and military officials to react sharply. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, stated that this deal will strengthen the ‘Axis of Resistance’—a term used to describe Tehran-backed proxy groups. Iran’s conservative newspaper Kayhan, which has close links with Ayatollah Khamenei, stated that the UAE is now a “legitimate target.” Other officials such as President Hassan Rouhani and Major General Mohammad Bagheri angrily opposed the deal. Iran soon unveiled two new missiles named after the late General Qasem Soleimani and Iran-backed Iraqi militia leader and politician, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The Abraham Accord and Iran
The Abraham Accord—which has proved to be more about Iran and Turkey rather than Arab-Israel rapprochement and/or the Palestinian Question—is expected to boost President Trump’s re-election campaign in the 2020 US presidential election. Irrespective of who becomes the next US president, Washington will continue its support for its major allies in the region—Israel, UAE, and Saudi Arabia—against threats from Tehran. To illustrate, Republican President Trump followed a “Maximum Pressure on Iran,” policy which succeeded Democrat President Barack Obama’s “Crippling Sanctions” policy.
Even if the arms embargo on Iran is lifted and a Democrat president assumes charge in Washington, on the domestic level, the Islamic Republic is dealing with bleak economic prospects, corruption, internal unrest, and a crisis of legitimacy. Strong opposition from the Iranian public against involvement in Israel-Arab issues as in “No Gaza, No Lebanon, My Life For Iran;” opposition to the Islamic Republic’s depiction of the US as the enemy;” and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic response has not helped the situation. Internationally, sanctions continue; strong opposition to Iran exists in Iraq and Lebanon; and the recognition of Hezbollah as terrorist group, combined with losses in Syria and concerns over the nuclear and missile program have all resulted in limited room to manoeuvre for Iran.
On a regional level, the Abraham Accord can sideline the Palestinian Question and prompt other Arab states to improve ties with Israel due to their fear of Tehran and Ankara. It could also fuel regional conflicts and shift the balance of power in favour of the UAE. If UAE-Israel relations go beyond investment, tourism and technology to include military and security ties, it will change the balance of power and the UAE’s role in Yemen and Libya. If Israeli arms reach the UAE, Abu Dhabi could crush the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen and support Khalifa Haftar in Libya against Turkey. This would push Tehran and Ankara together, triggering new blocs in the region.
This deal has the potential to add another dimension to the Iran-UAE rivalry along with religious, ideological and territorial aspects. Israeli presence in Iran’s southern shores would force Tehran to follow securitised and military approaches towards the UAE. Considering the domestic and international obstacles Iran is experiencing, Tehran could face difficulties in supporting its proxy groups across the region to counter emerging UAE-Israel ties. This could be a huge blow to the Islamic Republic and a game changer in the region.
*Majid Izadpanahi is an intern at the Institute of International Relations Prague, and a former IPCS Research Intern.