January 17th, 2014
10:11 AM ET

Gulf states have complicated relationship with Iran

By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can follow him @DavidAWeinberg. The views expressed are his own.

In a controversial interview aired this week, Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called for sanctions on Iran to be dropped. His proposal for prematurely unwinding the sanctions regime represents the most tangible success thus far for Iran’s efforts to weaken the Saudi-led consensus in the Gulf against Tehran.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, those actors most amenable to Iranian overtures have been Gulf leaders with a political or financial stake in engaging the Islamic Republic.

Shortly after Iran reached a short-term nuclear accord in November, its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, embarked on a regional tour of the Gulf, initially setting out to visit Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.  At the end of his tour, Zarif also tacked on an unexpected trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Qatar and Oman each share energy resources with Iran, Kuwait has an influential Shiite minority, and Dubai has long served as an illicit hub of trade and investment for Iran.

Soon after Zarif left the Arab side of the Gulf, word broke that Iran had redeployed some of its warplanes off of Abu Musa, one of the three islands Iran occupies that the United Arab Emirates claims as its own.  A day later, Defense News reported that the two sides were actually quite close to an agreement whereby the UAE would regain control of the islands and Iran would maintain rights to the seabed.  Now follow-on reports suggest that Oman might even help facilitate a deal between Iran and the UAE by promising the Iranians a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula instead.

A deal to evacuate the islands is hard to envision actually being ratified domestically within Iran.  Yet the mere fact Zarif was allowed to pursue such an ambitious initiative suggests he has at least a yellow light from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.  The Supreme Leader may well see it as a way to divide and conquer his country’s main rivals in the Gulf.

Indeed, it seems likely it was Iran’s new position on the islands that gained Zarif last-minute permission to visit the UAE, not Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5+1.  And because the UAE’s claim to the islands is exercised through Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah, these two emirates have now been given a stake in any efforts by Dubai to unravel the Iran sanctions regime.

Most other Gulf leaders have indicated they would only support the removal of sanctions if Iran stops its subversion attempts through Shiite communities in the Gulf and the Levant.  However, Sheikh Mohammed’s remarks suggest he is eager to see Dubai reclaim its position as an economic gateway to Iran without first insisting that it end its destructive behavior.

For years, American officials struggled to secure cooperation from Dubai on stopping illicit trade and finance with Iran.  In 2009, U.S. broadcaster Dan Rather described Sheikh Rashid’s little kingdom as not just “a 21st century monument to capitalism” but also “one of the easiest places on earth to launder money” according to his administration sources.  A former U.S. intelligence official recently told me “Dubai floats on Iranian cash.”

Ultimately, Dubai’s dealings with Iran were only reduced in a meaningful sense after the global financial crisis of 2008 brought the emirate’s real estate and credit markets crashing down. Dubai had to turn to Abu Dhabi, its oil-rich neighbor to the west, for a massive economic bailout, enabling Abu Dhabi to start rolling back this Iran-oriented shadow economy.  On his latest visit to the UAE, Secretary of State Kerry put the UAE’s price tag for supporting sanctions against Iran at about $19 billion.

But now that tenuous arrangement is coming undone: Dubai’s economy is recovering, and the tiny city-state has reclaimed its confidence, having recently won its bid to host an upcoming World Expo in 2020.  Evidently, Dubai is also becoming more assertive in its demands for trade with Tehran, even if that means turning a blind eye to Iranian efforts to achieve hegemony throughout the region.

The biggest obstacle Mohammed bin Rashid faces in this endeavor is still his neighbor to the west.  Abu Dhabi ruler Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is perceived by some as giving free rein to his younger brothers to craft defense and foreign policy for the UAE, especially Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.  Indeed, the latter Bin Zayed was described in a leaked U.S. cable as “the man who runs the United Arab Emirates,” except on oil policy or budgetary matters.

In his BBC interview this week, Mohammed bin Rashid said he trusted Iran would not use its nuclear program for aggression because Ahmadinejad once told him so. On the other hand, the New York Times reported that Mohammed bin Zayed once argued forcefully that it would be a mistake to appease Iran because in this regard “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.”

Bin Zayed has also spent two decades striving to transform the UAE’s armed forces from a band of squabbling militias to the point where they would be uniquely capable among the Gulf states in case of a regional conflagration. In his newly released book, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates even describes Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince as “one of the smartest, canniest people I have ever met.”

In 2010, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington made headlines for observing that “our military, who has existed for the past 40 years, wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat.”  You can probably guess which capital he was speaking for at the time: Abu Dhabi or Dubai.


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Topics: Middle East

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Mike

    One other reason that bin Rashid Al Maktoum called for sanctions on Iran to be dropped, is that supreme leader of Iran promised him to return three islands Tonbs and Abou Mousa to him if he supporting of dropping sanctions .
    Those islands ha been occupied by Shah.

    January 17, 2014 at 1:46 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes, there has been tension between the UAE and Iran over disputed Gulf islands. Before the oil era, the Persian Gulf states made little effort to delineate their territories. Until 1971, British-led forces maintained peace and order in the Gulf, and British officials arbitrated local quarrels. After their withdrawal, old territorial claims and suppressed tribal animosities rose to the surface.
      Iran is smart to take advantage of the dispute to advance its foreign policies.

      January 18, 2014 at 5:43 am |
    • Milliez

      Occupied? It has always been Iranian....

      January 18, 2014 at 8:30 am |
  2. Mike

    Larijani the head of islamic congress of Iran regime told today: We and Islam proud of Hezbolah!!
    Zarif put flowers in shrine of Ema Maghineh the hezbolah terrorist the exploded the USA and French building in Beirut and killed 300 and name him our Hero!!
    How the western countries trust those terrorist supporter!!?

    January 17, 2014 at 4:06 pm |
    • Alfonso

      You are right, I have no idea, Israel is so in control of the western regime, they maybe ordering them to do so.

      January 17, 2014 at 7:26 pm |
    • David Knowles

      May be just may be our western leaders know full well that Iran isn't the only country in the world that back terrorists and use them as a tool to achieve their goals.

      January 18, 2014 at 3:37 pm |
    • Notaneocon

      Terrorist is in the eye of the beholder. Your terrorist is another's freedom fighter

      January 19, 2014 at 8:55 am |
  3. Alfonso

    "Dubai has long served as an illicit hub of trade and investment for Iran."

    What a pile of nonsense. Dubai'e economy was build on their trade with Iran. Before the Zionist organized binge of US sanctions on Iran, there were no illicit trade UAE could do with Iran, there were nothing preventing them to trade with Iran. After that, they have been following the US sanctions. If there ever were any illicit trade they were illicit because they were breaking Iranian laws, by smuggling illegal merchandise into Iran, not the other way around.

    It is amazing how many Zionist extremist organizations with grandiose name are out there, each coming from a different direction to scuttle the agreement Iran has reached with the US. The author is with Foundation for Defense of Democracies, yeah right "Democracies". It is Cliff May's neocon/Zionist pro-Israel outfit. They support right wing Israeli policies first and foremost; the last proud apartheid nation on the face of the earth - Israel's only problem with apartheid is being called apartheid. If one visit their site, almost all of their "experts" and "fellows" have an expertise on Iran, while they claim in their about page, to have been founded after 9/11 "to help free nations defend themselves." They don't even have a single expert on Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 hijackers came from. Besides where do they get their money to have all of these people employed to write once in a while. I gather Sheldon Adelson cuts them a check once in a while, but who else?!!! Maybe a news organization should disclose where these folks are coming from before posting their nonsense.

    January 17, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
  4. Gary

    Alfonso, proud to see your analytical power! These right wing Zionists would hang Jesus again if he was to return today. What a sad world we live in, all they know of love is the Valentine day, pink heart and candy! Please somebody call 911!

    January 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm |
  5. Shahriar

    First off, Iran does not "occupy" these three Persian Gulf islands, they are rightfully part of Irans territory. Second of all, I highly doubt the validity of DefenseNews and its so-called "high-official" sources (the journalist is from UAE)

    January 18, 2014 at 5:10 am |
    • Mike

      Zarif in an interview last month: we negotiate about those islands with UAE!
      They want make all happy to have %90 enriched Uranium (using advanced centrifuges) + Russian rockets = bomb – after 6 months relief!

      January 18, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
  6. Kiumars

    The Persian Gulf Arabs are the decedents of the Jews that converted to Islam to destroy it from within

    January 18, 2014 at 11:44 am |
  7. Kiumars

    Dr. David Andrew Weinberg (Foundation for Defense of Democracies) is Jewish

    January 18, 2014 at 11:52 am |
  8. Mike

    Zarif was in Moscow to get S300 ballistic rockets last week!

    January 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm |
    • David Knowles

      I am also sure he tried to get the S400 as well, not that surprising really, every country has the right to defend themselves with conventional weapons.

      January 18, 2014 at 3:40 pm |
  9. Name*Dariush

    Persian Gulf States have complicated relationship with Iran.

    January 18, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
  10. tms5510

    what is "the gulf"? it is Persian Gulf

    January 19, 2014 at 12:47 am |
  11. tms5510

    Once Britain return those 3 islands to Iran (after decades of occupation) there were no country named UAE so stop propagating lies . Those islands will never hand over to anyone specially a small Arab sheikdom.

    January 19, 2014 at 12:50 am |
  12. reza

    David Andrew Weinberg, there are three different gulfs in middle east, these are; gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf. None is named just the "Gulf".

    January 19, 2014 at 9:29 am |
  13. Chog

    David Weinberg needs to remove his Zionist view point and be more objective.
    1. There is no "Gulf", it has always been and will always be Persian Gulf since the days of Cyrus the king.
    2. Those Islands belong to Iran and never been occupied except by free people who like to live there as oppose to Israel that occupies lands.
    3. It wasn't Zarif's new positon that allowed him to go to UAE it was UAEs' realizations that they need to work with Iran and the game is changing.

    Stop using Zionist terms and viewpoints when you pen your opinion.

    January 19, 2014 at 11:54 pm |
  14. Journalist

    Please remove this extremist and zionist propaganda

    January 21, 2014 at 12:38 pm |

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