The UAE-Israel Deal Spells Big Trouble For Iran
Watching Israel’s national carrier, El Al, make its maiden trip to the United Arab Emirates on Monday, including an overflight of Saudi Arabia, was itself history-making. The passenger list—a group of top American and Israeli officials, led by President Trump’s senior aide and son-in-law, Jared Kushner—only added to the moment’s significance. But it’s the work that these officials do with their Emirati counterparts in the coming weeks and months that has the potential to fundamentally alter the Middle East's strategic landscape, especially for countering the Iranian threat.
Make no mistake: The normalization deal is a major blow to Iran’s already-battered regional standing. Sure, it’s not the first breakthrough that Israel’s had with an Arab country. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have been on the books for decades.
But the UAE deal is the first in a generation, ending a 26-year long dry spell. It’s also the first with one of the six Gulf Arab states that sit directly on Iran’s doorstep. The Emirates, whose population (minus expatriates) might, with some creative accounting, approach one fortieth the size of Iran’s, acted in brazen defiance of the Tehran-led resistance camp on an issue—peace with the Zionist entity—absolutely central to the Islamic Republic’s ideological creed. Talk about a lack of fear or respect for Iranian power. You couldn’t do better than the videos of beaming Emirati children celebrating the Israeli delegation’s arrival by waving the Jewish state’s flag alongside balloons decked out in blue and white, its national colors.
The UAE's decision to forge what amounts to an open alliance with Israel and the United States, the Iranian regime’s two most implacable foes, couldn’t have come at a worse time for Tehran when both countries have declared open season on weakening the Islamic Republic. U.S. sanctions have put Iran’s economy under siege. An American drone recently killed Iran’s most important general. Israel attacks Iranian targets and personnel in Syria, month after month, with near-total impunity. And lest we forget, someone, somehow, has been penetrating the heart of Iran’s nuclear program, completely undetected, and blowing stuff up.
It’s impossible to measure the psychological effects of these kinds of public humiliations on a tyrannical regime. But that doesn’t lessen their potential importance. Iran’s theocracy has been hemorrhaging legitimacy for years, especially among its youth. Several outbursts of large-scale protests since 2017 have focused on ending the regime itself. An uprising last November required a full-on massacre of at least 1,000 people to extinguish.
The UAE’s outright repudiation of the Islamic Republic’s resistance narrative is precisely what Iranian demonstrators seek when they chant “no to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran.” Just as Emiratis smashed the taboo of normalization to pursue their national interest in establishing full relations with the Middle East’s most technologically-advanced economy, as well as its foremost military power, many Iranians long for a government that will put their wellbeing first, rather than wasting their national patrimony on far-off adventures to liberate Jerusalem, destroy Israel, or prop up a homicidal tyrant in Damascus.
No doubt, many Iranians also realize full well that it’s precisely those hyper-aggressive policies that are driving old enemies together to make common cause against the Islamic Republic. In response to the UAE deal, one former Iranian politician accurately opined that “We have scared the Arabs and pushed them towards Israel.” Another warned that “we are finding ourselves in a situation where our neighboring Arab countries are turning to Israel to confront Iran.” Arab-Israeli normalization is a powerful reminder for Iranians of both the venality and abject failure of the Islamic Republic’s imperialist policies, triggering a backlash that has left them increasingly isolated, impoverished, and insecure.
The situation is only likely to worsen. Whether next week, next month, or next year, all indications are that there’s a line of additional Arab states getting ready to jump on the normalization bandwagon. That’s certainly the goal of senior U.S. officials like Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as they launch a full-court press to engage other countries from Bahrain to Oman to Sudan on the issue of formalizing their relations with Israel as soon as possible.
The administration is exactly right to do so. Momentum, like psychology, is another one of those intangibles in international affairs that is hard to measure but can be critically important. With the UAE deal in hand, Washington has the wind at its back and should press its advantage. The United States has a profound interest in ensuring that the UAE deal—as important as it is—is not just a one-off event, but the start of a normalization wave that helps establish a new American-led order in the Middle East, centered around an open alliance between America’s staunchest Arab friends and its most important strategic partner, Israel, that seeks to bolster regional stability, prosperity and security. It goes without saying that seeing not just one of its Arab-Muslim rivals, but a group of them in fairly rapid succession overcoming their differences with Israel to join hands under an American umbrella would be a genuine nightmare for the Iranian regime.
Even on its own, the UAE-Israel deal raises a new set of dire challenges for the Islamic Republic that could dramatically worsen its strategic predicament. First, these are the two most dynamic and innovative economies in the Middle East. Integrating their capabilities across the full spectrum of human endeavor, as their respective leaderships appear fully committed to doing, will almost certainly bolster their wealth, influence, and power, much to the disadvantage of a hostile Iran. The opportunities for cooperation are almost limitless—from finance, healthcare, food security, and water desalination to energy, space, cyber, and joint R&D on next-generation technologies.
But perhaps more importantly, Israel and the UAE field two of the Middle East's most capable militaries and intelligence services. While neither country will want to say much about it publicly, the geopolitical significance of their joining forces to deter, counter, and, if necessary, defeat Iran's threat should not be underestimated. The Emirates plays host to hundreds of thousands of Iranians who travel back and forth to the Islamic Republic. Thousands of Iranian-linked businesses still use the UAE as one of their last commercial and financial hubs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this could eventually be a goldmine for an Israeli Mossad working in full collaboration with its Emirati counterparts.
Militarily, the implications could be even more profound for Iran not just because the UAE will, eventually, likely acquire American F-35s, the most advanced combat jet in the world, that will dramatically enhance its ability to attack targets across Iran. And not just because Israel, as part of Washington’s corresponding obligation to maintain its qualitative military edge, will probably gain access to important new capabilities to thwart the Iranian threat. But also, critically, because of something related to what the pilot of Monday’s El Al flight to Abu Dhabi announced as the plane crossed into Saudi airspace: a trip that otherwise would have exceeded 7 hours in order to circumnavigate the Persian Gulf only took 3 hours and 20 minutes. In other words, normalization has the potential to dramatically shrink the significant challenges of time and space that have bedeviled Israeli contingency plans for attacking Iran for years. That’s especially true if the Israeli military eventually secures the ability to make use of UAE bases. Reducing what would have been a several thousand mile problem to just a few hundred miles resolves a lot of operational obstacles, significantly boosting the credibility and likely success of any independent Israeli military option to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, should it prove necessary.
The UAE-Israel deal has the potential to alter the Middle East's balance of power fundamentally to the advantage of U.S. national interests. The Iranian regime knows that and will no doubt fight back. Its leaders have already leveled bellicose threats against the Emirates for their alleged betrayal of Islam. And if two deadly explosions that rocked restaurants in Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the day of the El Al flight’s arrival turn out not to be accidents, it would hardly be shocking to find that forces linked to Iran were somehow involved. While girding themselves to counter those dangers and more, the United States and its regional allies should be doing everything in their power to ensure that they don’t miss the extraordinary opportunity that now exists to change the history of the long-troubled Middle East in a far more positive direction.
John Hannah, senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, previously served as national security advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.