A Quiet Axis Forms Against Iran in the Middle East
Israel and the Arab states near the Persian Gulf recognize a common threat: the regime in Tehran. A regional diplomat has not even ruled out support by the Arab states for a military strike to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is early in the morning on the wharfs in Sharjah, just below the Museum of Islamic Civilization, where the heavy wooden ships known as dhows are being loaded with cargo. Pakistani laborers hoist engine blocks, plasma monitors and mineral oil into the ships’ holds. When asked where the dhows are headed, they say, matter-of-factly: “Iran.”
Trade between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their neighbor across the Strait of Hormuz is an everyday occurrence that hardly deserves mention on the docks.
The same families are often on both shores. The business relationships between them have grown over generations and are more enduring than any war or embargo.
Of course, shipping engine blocks to the Iranian port city of Bandar-e Lengeh is not prohibited. But the busy import and export trade in the dhow ports of the emirates of Sharjah, Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah shows how difficult it is to isolate Tehran.
This makes the words uttered last Tuesday by the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, in Aspen, Colorado, more than 12,500 kilometers to the west, all the more interesting. Otaiba was attending a forum at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, and the mood was relaxed, or at least it was too relaxed for diplomatic restraint.
The discussion revolved around the Middle East. When asked whether the UAE would support a possible Israeli air strike against the regime in Tehran, Ambassador Otaiba said: “A military attack on Iran by whomever would be a disaster, but Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a bigger disaster.”
These were unusually candid words. A military strike, the diplomat continued, would undoubtedly lead to a “backlash.” “There will be problems of people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country,” he said.
But, he added, “if you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran,’ my answer is still the same. We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the U.A.E.”
Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman said afterwards that she had never heard anything like it coming from an Arab government official. Otaiba, she added, was “astonishingly honest.”
Notwithstanding the shocking nature of his remarks, Otaiba was merely expressing, in a public forum, “the standard position of many Arab countries,” says Middle East expert Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly who moderated the panel discussion in Aspen.
The fact that some Western politicians are unfamiliar with this position has to do with their own ignorance, and with the diplomatic skill with which the smaller Gulf states, in particular, have managed to hide their opposition to their powerful neighbor until now.
“The Jews and Arabs have been fighting for one hundred years. The Arabs and the Persians have been going at (it) for a thousand,” argues Goldberg on The Atlantic’s Web site.
Almost all Arab neighbors have a hostile relationship with the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia suspects Iran of stirring up the Shiite minority in its eastern provinces. The Arab emirates accuse Iran of occupying three islands in the Persian Gulf. Egypt has not had regular diplomatic relations with Iran since a street in Tehran was named after the murderer of former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat…