Last weekend, foreign ministers representing Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) held a rare meeting to discuss “bilateral, regional and global situations,” including the COVID-19 crisis. The meeting, which was done over video call due to the pandemic, included an exchange of greetings between both parties in celebration of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. According to Reuters, Emirati Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan stressed the need for “strengthening bilateral cooperation” between Abu Dhabi and Tehran as the coronavirus continues to disrupt societal norms in the Middle East. Following the meeting, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the conversation had been “very substantive, frank and friendly,” adding that both sides “agreed to continue dialogue on the theme of hope – especially as [the] region faces tough challenges, and tougher choices ahead.”
This is not the first time that the Sunni Muslim UAE and Shiite Iran have put their political differences aside to engaged in productive COVID-19 conversation. In March, the UAE sent multiple Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shipments to Iran, including “thousands of pairs of gloves” and “surgical masks” according to Al-Monitor.
While both countries have been severely impacted by the pandemic, Iran, as of Saturday 8 August, has the most coronavirus cases in the entire Middle East with 324,000, along with over 18,000 deaths. As a result, the UAE announced its commitment to “doing all it can to stamp out the virus, both at home and around the Gulf region.” Reem Bint Ibrahim Al Hashimy, the UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation, further stated that “providing life-saving assistance to those experiencing distress is essential to serving the common good,” and that the state’s “leadership and people stand shoulder to shoulder with nations in their time of need.” Iran has gladly welcomed the support, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi commented that this cooperation has brought “more reason and logic” to the relations between these two traditional adversaries.
The source of such hostility derives from several avenues, including the UAE’s long-standing alliance with regional superpower and fellow Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia. For many years, economic, religious, and political disputes have caused bitter rivalry to develop between Riyadh and Tehran, resulting in an inflammation of regional conflict and military tension. This is particularly displayed in Yemen, a country that has been plagued by civil war since 2014, when the Houthis overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and seized control of the government. A proxy war has unfolded since, with Iran providing the Houthis with weapons and financial support, while Saudi Arabia offered refuge to Hadi and vowed to restore him to power and defeat the Shiite organization. To combat the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and several other Sunni Muslim Gulf nations, has launched over 20,000 airstrikes in Yemen, according to a 2019 Al Jazeera report. The Saudi coalition has received assistance from several western states including the United States and the United Kingdom, who seek to counter the Iranian regime and hope the destruction of the Houthis will contain Tehran’s expansive influence in the Middle East.
In addition to its alliance with Saudi Arabia, the UAE holds a very close partnership with another Iranian adversary, the United States. The U.S. State Department says it enjoys “strong bilateral cooperation” with the UAE on several policies, “including defence, non-proliferation, trade, law enforcement, energy policy, and cultural exchange.” As a result, this relationship has made it incredibly difficult over the past few years for Iran and the UAE to engage in any meaningful or productive talks, considering how poorly relations are between the United States and Iran. Washington and Tehran’s relationship showed signs of improvement in 2015 following the signing of the JCPOA, an agreement that barred Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and offered sanction relief in exchange. However, any hopes of immediate peace quickly faded following the election of Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to abandon the deal and reinstate sanctions on Iran as a necessary means to place the regime under “maximum pressure.”
After Trump formally withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, Iran has become even more aggressive and unpredictable in the Middle East. Iran has since attacked multiple oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, destroyed two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, and even shot down an American aerial surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz, which the United States claims were flying above international waters. Some foreign policy experts feared that military intervention may occur following the death of Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian General who was killed in an airstrike ordered by Trump in January 2020. Iran responded with an aerial attack on an American military base in Iraq and appealed to the international community for support after issuing arrest warrants to Trump and 35 others for their roles in “directing the assassination” of their highest ranking defence official.
With Iran at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia, it seems logical why Tehran and Abu Dhabi have historically failed to sustain a mutually beneficial relationship. The list of reasons for disengaged relations goes on and on, and while UAE and Iranian cordiality is a service to the global peace initiative, their sudden cooperation in recent months is a compelling case study that is deserving of further investigation. Bilateral dialogue between historically undiplomatic nations is fundamentally key amidst the global health crisis, as it potentially paves the way for more international relief efforts to aid disadvantaged countries and those who have suffered most from COVID-19. The window of opportunity that this case study brings is paramount, revealing how peace can be achieved between states torn apart by war and prolific regional disputes. It further provides the international community with a model for how two states on opposite sides of the bitter regional conflict can suddenly come together and exchange cheerful greetings during a religious holiday.
Relations between the UAE and Iran did not improve spontaneously, but rather because each country had something to gain by working with the other. At the time of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, Iran proved incapable of containing the spread of the virus, at one point having the third-highest number of confirmed cases in the world. In fact, Iran’s true coronavirus count is likely much higher than has been reported, considering the regime downplayed the severity of the virus early on and covered up COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths. Prior to the pandemic, Iran was already experiencing its worst economic crisis since 1979 as a result of reinstated U.S. sanctions preventing Iran from selling oil to international buyers. With the country in financial chaos and social unrest growing in Iranian streets, Tehran simply could not recover from COVID-19 without international assistance, which the UAE strategically recognized and acted upon.
The UAE has suffered economically ever since the United States pulled out of the JCPOA and Iran became an even greater security threat. According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, “increased risk from regional tensions,” specifically Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the Gulf, “has led to decline in growth in the UAE of 1.9% in 2019.” Even though the report was published in November 2019, and therefore does not take the COVID-19 crisis into account, it warned that “the ongoing loss of trade with Iran due to U.S. sanctions” meant the UAE were poised for a recession. With the goal of recovering financially, the UAE has turned towards “a de-escalatory strategy,” in which they have sought to minimize conflict with Iran and negotiate with its government in a peaceful manner. While this may cause the Saudi-UAE alliance to suffer, this highly pragmatic foreign policy approach serves as an opportunity for both parties to improve their economic and political circumstances.
The expansion of cooperation between the UAE and Iran could very well continue in a post-COVID-19 world. This is not to say that these countries will ever become close allies, considering the UAE has designated the Houthis as terrorists and participates with Saudi Arabia in an airstrike campaign to destabilize the Iranian-backed group’s sphere of influence in Yemen. However, a politically cordial and economically beneficial relationship is possible to sustain even if obvious religious and institutional differences lay between each country’s leadership. This case study also makes it feasible to predict that similar trends could transpire in other regions of the world between nations traditionally torn apart by diplomatic conflict. In light of recent global events, specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, these strife-ridden states may be willing to open negotiations with formal adversaries that could help their populations rebound from crisis and catastrophe.
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