It is by now almost a formality: In the Middle East, nothing either good or bad can transpire without Washington pointing to Tehran’s alleged hegemonic designs as the force behind it. So it was with the so-called peace deal announced last week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates; two countries who were never at war declared peace, and the Trump administration—along with much of Washington—quickly deemed it historic. Though the two states have intimately (but quietly) collaborated on security matters for years, the announcement of their security alliance was, according to the conventional wisdom, a groundbreaking move that was only made possible due to their shared sense of threat from Iran.
Much of Washington agrees with this. “The Iranian regime’s regional aggression has brought the Arab nations and Israel closer together,” Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt quipped last year, echoing one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite talking points. The 2015 nuclear deal had empowered Iran, Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly in 2018, and “brought Israel and many Arab states closer together than ever before, in an intimacy and friendship that I have not seen in my lifetime and would have been unimaginable a few years ago.”
These “enemy of my enemy” truisms may make for a compelling narrative, but they do not hold up to scrutiny. Certainly, tensions between Iran and some Arab states—primarily Saudi Arabia—have risen since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But if Iran is such a monumental threat that it would force the UAE to do the “unimaginable,” then one would expect Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy to be laser-focused on Tehran while avoiding getting distracted by lesser rivalries. That’s not the case. Abu Dhabi has gotten itself entangled in several unwise and unnecessary military interventions far from the 65 miles of water that separate it from Iran. Almost all of those adversarial entanglements are with Turkey and Qatar—not Iran.
In Libya, UAE-aligned forces are in direct combat with Turkish-backed troops as Abu Dhabi fights for control in what remains of that country. Iran has no meaningful involvement in Libya. In Syria, the Emirati rulers have moved closer to the Assad regime (which is supported by Iran) as Syrian troops fight Turkish-backed fighters in the north. Ideologically, the UAE views the Muslim Brotherhood as its main rival, and the Brotherhood’s principal backers are—again—Turkey and Qatar, not Iran.
When Riyadh and Abu Dhabi imposed a blockade on Qatar in the summer of 2017, it was reportedly just a prelude to a Saudi-UAE plan to invade the small kingdom and replace its government. The plan was averted in part because Turkey sent several thousand troops to Qatar as a deterrent. Two years earlier, Abu Dhabi had played an important role in a failed attempt to overthrow Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Needless to say, that episode further deepened the animosity between Ankara and the Emiratis.
And in Yemen, the UAE directly fought the Iranian-backed Houthis until calling it quits last year and abandoning the Saudis to fight that war on their own—a move that reduced Abu Dhabi’s entanglement with Iran.
Though UAE-Iranian relations undoubtedly remain problematic, tensions have been easing in the past year. Tehran and Abu Dhabi have restarted their dialogue and collaborated in the struggle against Covid-19; the UAE even released $700 million of Iran’s frozen funds last fall in a measure that directly challenged the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy. As Samuel Ramani writes this week in Responsible Statecraft, the UAE has even “actively sought to redirect domestic attention away from Iran and towards Turkey and has also convinced Saudi Arabia of the gravity of the Turkish threat.”
Anwar Gargash, the UAE foreign minister, says as much publicly, contradicting the talking points used by Israeli and American officials. “This is not about Iran,” he told reporters after the announcement of the deal with Israel. “This is in no way meant to create some sort of grouping against Iran.… While we have our concerns, we feel also that resolving these issues should be through diplomacy and de-escalation.”
What binds Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE together is not so much the threat from Iran but the threat of the United States military leaving the Middle East. These three states have been the foremost benefactors of America’s military domination in the region, gifting them a beneficial power balance that they could not have achieved on their own. The fallout from the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a major blow to this balance, overextending the U.S. and fueling calls for America to end its endless wars and to bring the troops home. America’s deteriorating Iraqi fiasco was a terrifying development for Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE.
Ever since, these states have made the recommitment of the United States to the region the overarching goal of their foreign policy. They consistently and vehemently oppose any measure that would allow the U.S. to reduce its military commitments, and its presence, in the region. Those commitments are reinforced by reports that the U.S. conditioned sales of F-35 jets and drones to the UAE on Abu Dhabi normalizing relations with Israel. Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council tend to view such massive purchases of American weaponry as informal defense pacts that oblige the U.S. to protect them militarily.
Keeping the U.S. stuck in the Middle East for the benefit of these states is not a popular or effective talking point in Washington. Exaggerating the threat of Iran is.
Tying the Israeli-UAE deal to Iran serves several purposes. It not only reinforces the notion that America must prevent the region from falling under Persian dominion; it also helps the Netanyahu government claim that Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories is not an obstacle to peace with its Arab neighbors. It further endears the UAE to the pro-Israel hawks in Washington, whose support Abu Dhabi often has relied upon to fight Qatar and Turkey. It provides Trump with a much needed foreign policy win ahead of the November elections—one that he hopes will shore up his support among Christian evangelicals, whose backing of Israel is intricately tied to a biblical belief in the End Times being preceded by a major war with Iran.
“When Iran gets into the news, especially with anything to do with war, it’s sort of a prophetic dog whistle to evangelicals,” religious historian Diana Butler Bass, who grew up in the evangelical church, told Mother Jones magazine earlier this year. “They will support anything that seems to edge the world towards this conflagration [because] they think that this war with Iran and Israel has to happen for their larger hope to pass.”
Most importantly, positioning the Emirati-Israeli accord as an anti-Iran move reinforces America’s status-quo military commitment to the Middle East, despite the increasingly loud calls from the American public to bring the troops home.
Of course, using an exaggerated Iranian threat to overcome obstacles to a modus vivendi between Israel and its Arab neighbors is nothing new. To sell the Oslo accords to the Israeli public in the early 1990s, the government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres deliberately exaggerated the threat from Iran: They calculated that the Israeli public would be loath to make peace with Yassir Arafat unless there was a more ominous threat looming on the horizon. “We need to reach a peace agreement before the Iranians have a nuclear missile capability that could reshape the balance of power in the region,” Yitzhak Rabin told Israeli voters. The heightening of fears regarding Iran “served a political purpose,” then Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk told me. “It sent the signal that the threat is no longer the Palestinians or the Arabs, therefore we need to make peace with the inner circle.”
But today, the Palestinians are mere non-speaking extras in a Washington production of “Middle East Peace.” And the land-for-peace formula is long dead, as Israel has systematically encroached Palestinian territory with impunity. Now, the Iran threat is wielded against an entirely different audience—the American public.