UAE-Israel Abraham Accord: The Iran Context

03 Sep, 2020    ·   5719

Majid Izadpanahi contextualises Iran’s opposition of the Abraham Accord and the deal’s potential implications for Tehran and the region.

Majid Izadpanahi
Majid Izadpanahi
Research Intern

On 13 August 2020, US President Donald Trump announced the signing of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-Israel deal, also known as the Abraham Accord. The UAE is the third Arab state (after Egypt and Jordan), and the first Arab state in the Persian Gulf, to sign a peace treaty with Israel. At this juncture, it is important to understand Iran’s opposition to the deal and the deal’s possible implications for Tehran.

Iran’s Stance: Israel and the Arab States
Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran managed to balance good relations with Israel and the Arab states. Iran was the second Muslim-majority country (after Turkey) to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Tehran also had cordial relations with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Iraq, although there were times when limited competing nationalism (with Egypt) or brief territorial disputes (with the UAE and Iraq) cast a shadow over relations.

However, Tehran’s post 1979 regime has followed a different approach in West Asia. The policy of exporting the revolution has damaged relations between Iran and Arab states. From the Arab states’ vantage point, Iran, by seeking to overthrow their governments, is a threat to their internal security. Moreover, the Iranian Shia regime’s ambition of leading the Muslim world has added an ideological dimension to the tension, Shiism vs Sunniism.

Vis-à-vis Tel Aviv, Ayatollah Khomeini called for “wiping Israel off the world map,” which became former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oft-repeated slogan. Acornerstone of Tehran’s approach towards Israel, it became one of the main causes of Iran-US tensions. Tehran’s involvement in Arab world disputes and its continuous support of anti-Israeli groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas has pushed Arabs and Israelis together due to their perception of a common threat. Turkey’s engagement in West Asian conflicts as well as issues with Israel and the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership has raised concerns in Tel Aviv and among Arab states of Iran and Turkey acting as imperialist forces.

Iran’s policy towards the states in the region has engendered a vicious cycle of ideological and security rivalry. Tehran’s concerns over the UAE-Israel deal have prompted political and military officials to react sharply. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, stated that this deal would strengthen the ‘Axis of Resistance’—a term used to describe Tehran-backed proxy groups. Iran’s conservative newspaper Kayhan, which has close links with Ayatollah Khamenei, stated that the UAE is now a “legitimate target.” Other officials such as President Hassan Rouhani and Major General Mohammad Bagheri angrily opposed the deal. Iran soon unveiled two new missiles named after the late General Qasem Soleimani and Iran-backed Iraqi militia leader and politician, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The Abraham Accord and Iran
The Abraham Accord—which has proved to be more about Iran and Turkey than Arab-Israel rapprochement and/or the Palestinian question—is expected to boost President Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. Irrespective of who becomes the next US president, Washington will continue supporting its major allies in the region—Israel, UAE, and Saudi Arabia—against threats from Tehran. 

Even if the arms embargo on Iran is lifted and a Democrat president assumes charge in Washington, at the domestic level, Tehran is dealing with bleak economic prospects, corruption, internal unrest, and a crisis of legitimacy. Strong opposition from the Iranian public against involvement in Israel-Arab issues as in “No Gaza, No Lebanon, My Life For Iran;” opposition to the Islamic Republic’s depiction of the US as the enemy;” and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped the situation. Meanwhile, sanctions continue and there is strong opposition to Iran in Iraq and Lebanon. Further, the recognition of Hezbollah as terrorist group, combined with losses in Syria, and concerns over Iran's nuclear and missile programme have all resulted in limited room for manoeuvre.

Looking Ahead
At a regional level, the Abraham Accord can sideline the Palestinian question and prompt other Arab states to improve ties with Israel , particularly due to the threat perception from Tehran and Ankara. It could also fuel regional conflict and shift the balance of power in favour of the UAE. If UAE-Israel relations go beyond investment, tourism, and technology to include military and security ties, it will change the UAE’s role in Yemen and Libya, and the regional balance of power. If Israeli arms reach the UAE, Abu Dhabi could crush the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen and support Khalifa Haftar in Libya against Turkey. This would push Tehran and Ankara together, triggering new blocs in the region.

This deal has the potential to add another dimension to Iran-UAE tensions, alongside religious, ideological, and territorial concerns. Israeli presence on Iran’s southern shores would force Tehran to adopt military approaches towards the UAE. Considering the domestic and international obstacles, Tehran could face difficulties in supporting proxy groups across the region to counter emerging UAE-Israel ties. This could be a huge blow to Iran, and a game changer in the region.

Majid Izadpanahi is an intern at the Institute of International Relations Prague, and a former IPCS Research Intern.