This week’s ballistic missile attack on the United Arab Emirates, the third assault from Iran-backed forces in Yemen in January, seems to be expanding the bellicose message Tehran is sending across the Gulf and the Middle East, as well as taking square aim at a thriving but vulnerable tourism, trade and financial hub with a reputation for stability.
The first attack, aimed near Abu Dhabi international airport and installations of the state oil company Adnoc, was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels but many suspect its very precision bore the hallmark of Tehran.
It was a message to the UAE not to re-enter the seven-year war in Yemen between the Houthis and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, from which the Emiratis more or less withdrew in 2019. Last month, however, UAE-trained proxy forces halted what had been a winning Houthi offensive in north Yemen.
That, self-evidently, was about the vicious tug of war in Yemen. The attack on Monday, by contrast, was timed to coincide with the historic visit to the UAE by Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, with which the Emiratis opened diplomatic relations in 2020 under the controversial Abraham Accords sponsored by former US president Donald Trump.
These accords — adding four Arab countries to Egypt and Jordan which made peace with Israel in 1979 and 1994 — are anathema to Iran and its Shia Arab allies in the Levant and the Gulf.
But the point about this attack is that Iran has moved the heterodox Shia Houthis’ agenda on Yemen towards its own agenda on Israel. This is the Houthis’ seventh war against central power in Yemen. This time, however, they control the capital Sana’a and are backed by Iran and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia paramilitary power that has become Iran’s spearhead in Iraq and Syria as well as Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, expected quick victory when it entered Yemen in 2015. It instead sank into a quagmire of indiscriminate destruction from which the UAE slowly exited after Iran in 2019 hit a Saudi Aramco oil hub with a devastating drone and missile attack (which the Houthis also claimed).
Intermittent UN-sponsored and US-backed talks to end the Yemen war stutter on. Even the Saudis want a respectable exit from this disaster. But what has just been signalled this week is that even if that miracle occurred, the Iranians might use Israel and its relationship with their rivals in the Gulf as an ongoing provocation and Yemen as a base to pursue it.
This is faintly reminiscent of the aftermath of Israel ending its 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in 2000. Then, Hizbollah and its allies in Damascus and Tehran announced the Israelis still held Shebaa Farms, a tiny enclave few Lebanese had heard of and many international maps placed in Syria.
The Houthis have over the years evinced little interest in Israel and Palestine beyond the formulaic flourishes they owe their patrons. Aside from Iran they have a bolt-hole in Hizbollah’s fief in south Beirut and a TV station there.
What the incident shows is an Iran unwilling to compromise. The talks in Vienna to restore the nuclear restraint accord Tehran agreed with six world powers in 2015, which Trump abandoned unilaterally in 2018, are not moving. Among other things, Iran’s now uniformly hardline leadership demands a guarantee that no future US president can repudiate its terms. What is not up for discussion are its ballistic missile programme and the Shia Arab militias that it sees as extending its defence but its neighbours regard as neo-Persian (and Shia) imperialism.
Qatar, the gas-rich emirate the Saudis and Emiratis boycotted in 2017-20, in part for its links with Iran, is trying to mediate between Washington and Tehran. Qatar’s foreign minister was just in Iran and this week its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, saw President Joe Biden at the White House. They are talking about lots of things, including Qatari provision of gas to Europe if the Ukraine crisis leads to Russia cutting off supplies.
But the Iran conversation is inescapable. Especially in its current mood. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader and linchpin, this week blasted the pragmatic government of President Hassan Rouhani that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. He accused it of pursuing the fools’ gold of sanctions relief while the US used non-nuclear sanctions on its regional activity to shut it out of the dollar-controlled system. The implication was that Iran would not make concessions for another mirage of opening to the west.
Iran may be crippled by sanctions but seems to have gained confidence from China, its biggest oil customer. Beijing is the strategist of the global Belt and Road Initiative that embraces Iran and has upped its stake in the Middle East — especially in countries within its sphere of influence such as Iraq. But it is not interested in the ideological or sectarian disputes of the region. It supplies sensitive technology to the UAE, and helps the Saudis develop ballistic missiles. It does not discriminate quite like Tehran.