When the UAE held talks with the Iranian regime last month, things appeared to go as well as could be expected. National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed landed in Iran on December 6 and invited President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Abu Dhabi next month.
But instead of returning the good will, Iran’s militia in Yemen, the Houthis, responded this week with an attack on civilian targets in the UAE’s capital. The strikes, which included the use of weaponized drones, targeted a fuel storage depot, killing three people and injuring six more. The attacks also caused a fire near Abu Dhabi airport.
Tehran’s about face from dialogue to drone warfare proves that President Joe Biden – with his mantra that “only talking” to Iran can bring regional stability – is terribly wrong. Like most other rogue states, the only diplomacy that works with Iran is the old fashioned version described by President Theodore Roosevelt as “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Emirati dialogue with Tehran did not protect the UAE from Houthi attacks because Iran views global affairs as a zero sum game that has no place for neutral players or gray areas. In its showdown with America and Israel, Tehran wants governments in the region to pick sides and suffer consequences if they go against Iran.
Cognizant of the escalating tension between Iran and Israel, and aware that its growing peace with the Jewish state might be seen as closing the door on Iran, Abu Dhabi sent Sheikh Tahnoun to Iran with a clear message: The UAE plans to sit out any possible military confrontation between Israel and Iran. While Abu Dhabi might have favorites, it will keep its choices to itself and will not give either side a hand.
Iran seemingly approved of the UAE’s message and tried to use the trip as a photo opportunity to signal to other regional capitals that Tehran is the new sheriff in town, and that other Gulf governments must court and befriend the regime.
Iranian antagonism toward the UAE, however, might not only be about regional politics.
The successful Emirati model is the antithesis of the Islamist government that Iran preaches. In the UAE, peace, meritocracy and a knowledge economy have given millions of Emiratis and expatriate residents the opportunity to live, thrive and prosper. On the contrary, the Iranian model is about war, killing, coercion and religious fundamentalism. In the Iranian model, there is no place for countries that want to live and let live.
Tehran, therefore, wanted to remind the UAE that while its model is successful, it is also vulnerable to wars. And because Tehran is gifted in starting conflicts and spreading destruction, it wants the UAE to know that Abu Dhabi must take Tehran’s side against Washington, or suffer the consequences.
The weakness of the Biden administration has aggravated the problem. Biden’s ideological and unrealistic foreign policy has invited Iran to bully its neighbors, a behavior that Tehran never dared to show after the Donald Trump administration killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani.
Evidence substantiating the argument that Tehran ordered the strike against the UAE is the technology used in the attack: Initial reports suggest Iranian-made explosive drones and possibly ballistic missiles. Pro-Iran militias are rarely allowed to operate such technology without Iranian supervision, or at least permission.
Past behavior of the pro-Iran militias gives further clues on how the Iranian chain of command works. In Lebanon, for example, Iran’s Hezbollah enjoys full independence on domestic policies. But when it comes to regional conflagrations, Iran calls the shots.
During the early years of the Syrian war, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly denied that the conflict was taking place. Sources close to the party’s leadership said that the pro-Iran militia planned to sit out the war. Iran, however, ordered Hezbollah in.
Like in Lebanon, also in Iraq, Tehran has often overruled its proteges on regional issues. On domestic issues, Iran lets its militias decide their moves.
When militias need support, Iran is usually happy to oblige, like in the explosive drone attack that targeted Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Baghdad. Only two airports offered the airstrip required for the drones to take off. One is in southern Iran, the other on the Iraqi border with Syria. Both bases are controlled by the Iranian regime, yet the attack was claimed by the pro-Iran militias.
This is probably what happened in the attack on the UAE: Iranian agents in Yemen commanded the attack and operated the drones, the Houthis took credit.
Another possible Iranian motive behind the attack on Abu Dhabi could have been the humiliation that Tehran suffered after a number of mysterious bombings hit the country over the weekend. In retaliation, Iran decided to drag the UAE into the conflict, despite Abu Dhabi’s efforts to stay out and maintain good neighborly ties with Tehran.
Tehran has a long history of losing friends. The regime’s decision to turn on the UAE at such a moment might be one that the Islamic republic will come to regret in the future.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.