If not for its timing, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, and his meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, could have been seen as just another sign of improving bilateral ties. However, Bennett arrived as the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna stalled, with the drums of war audible in the background.
The signatories to the Abraham Accords—the Gulf states, Israel and the United States, which brokered them—understand that the moment of truth is approaching, and that there are only two possibilities. Either the Iranians will fold, pull back from their impossible demands and sign a deal of one kind or another, or the “military option” will become unavoidable, as Defense Minister Benny Gantz discussed during his meetings in Washington last week.
This is why Iran’s race to a nuclear bomb will naturally have been one of the main issues discussed in Bennett’s meetings with the crown prince, along with promoting bilateral ties.
The Gulf states are worried, rightfully, about the possible ramifications of any military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities by the United States, Israel, or both. The concern stems both from their proximity to Iran and the fact that the Iranians have made it clear, repeatedly, that they are dissatisfied (to put it mildly) with the Gulf states’ new alliance with Jerusalem.
Less easy to understand is the concern Israeli security and defense officials have recently voiced over signs that the UAE and Iran are moving closer, as seen last week when Emirati National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed visited Tehran. The same Israeli officials also said they hoped that Bennett’s visit would “stop that increasing closeness.” It’s true that the adviser, the crown prince’s half brother, is the first high-ranking Emirati official to visit Iran in some five years, and it’s also true that the visit took place against a backdrop of concern in the Gulf states, as well as Saudi Arabia, that they cannot put their faith in Biden’s America to protect them from the Iranians. But the UAE hasn’t switched sides.
Only last month, the Emirati military took place in a joint Red Sea naval drill with the United States and Israel that was designed to send an aggressive message to Iran. At the same time, preparing for the possibility of military clashes, the UAE signed a deal to purchase a South Korean air defense system for $3.5 billion (making the Israeli dilemma about whether or not to sell Iron Dome to the Gulf states irrelevant, for now). Relations with the United States are of paramount importance to the United States, and for that reason Abu Dhabi agreed to cancel a project Chinese firms had started to construct at the UAE’s main port, which the Americans suspected was military in nature.
The Emirates are not switching sides, and there is no surprising rapprochement in relations between the UAE and Iran at Israel’s expense. The Emirates have been doing business with Iran for years, but see the ayatollahs’ regime as a threat to their security and the security of the gulf, and believe that Israel can be trusted to help them in any way it can. It all comes down to Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed wanting to see himself, and be seen as, a major player in the region, who can talk to everyone—the Israelis, the Americans and the Iranians, as well.
If the Vienna talks get hopelessly bogged down, the Emirati connection could actually turn out to be a secret channel through which messages can be delivered, moments before the fighter aircraft lift off.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.