The UAE’s Ambassador to the US has accused Iran of continuing to spread instability in the region after the nuclear deal, but said he hoped diplomacy could work to convince Tehran that a peaceful order is in the region’s best interests.
“Since the signing of the nuclear deal, we have seen nothing but more Iranian aggression,” said Yousef Al Otaiba.
But, he added: “We are hopeful that Iran will seize this historic opening with a new commitment to regional stability and respect for the sovereignty of the other nations.”
“It is time to see if Iran is willing to show the same kind of pragmatism and moderation in its regional policies,” he said, referring to Tehran’s approach to the nuclear deal.
Speaking at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies think tank in Washington on Friday, the Ambassador pointed to Iranian military support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria as key illustrations of Tehran’s destabilizing policies in Arab countries.
The UAE Embassy posted photographs to Twitter during Mr Al Otaiba’s remarks, claiming to show military communications equipment and anti-tank missiles found on Iranian smuggling boats bound for Yemen that were intercepted by coalition forces in autumn.
The Ambassador called on the United States to focus its diplomatic efforts on putting an end to such Iranian policies with the “same level of urgency, determination and leadership” that it displayed during negotiations for the nuclear accord, and to hold Tehran accountable for violations of international law.
“What the nuclear deal has done is take one significant threat off the table at least for the next 10 to 15 years that should give us the opportunity to address everything else in a far more objective way,” Mr Al Otaiba said.
Tensions between Iran and its main rival for regional influence, Saudi Arabia, have flared since the nuclear deal was implemented last month, and diplomatic ties were formally severed after the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The UAE downgraded its relations with Iran.
Mr Al Otaiba said he hoped the same relatively moderate political forces in Iran that pushed for the nuclear compromise would begin to play a larger role in foreign policy decisions, and that the UAE stands to benefit from improved bilateral relations more than any other country.
“No country has more to gain from more peaceful and productive ties with Iran than we do: Our coasts are less than 21 miles apart, we have significant trade ties, and we see enormous opportunities for greater economic, energy, and cultural links,” he said. “We not only understand that we must find ways to coexist with Iran, we actually seek them.
However, he added, “if Tehran continues to ignore opportunities for reconciliation, Iran’s influence will ultimately prove to be even more destabilizing than ISIS.”
The UAE is part of the US-led coalition fighting the extremist group in Syria and Iraq, and the ambassador pushed back against public statements by senior US administration officials in recent months that the Arab Gulf countries should do more to fight ISIL rather than focus all of their attention on the war in Yemen.
Mr Al Otaiba for his part criticized the US-led coalition’s strategy and the competing priorities and national interests that he said have hampered the fight in Syria and Iraq. “We have not been able to get a consensus about what our strategy is … therefore, we have not been able to mobilize the Syrian opposition, we have not been able to defeat the extremists,” he said. “The focus right now on Syria is well placed but I also think it’s a bit late.”
While the UAE supports moderate Syrian rebels, it has not played as central a military role backing rebel groups because of concerns about the increased prominence of religious extremist groups. Mr Al Otaiba said that while a new constitution that limits presidential power and a parliamentary system with over-representation of minorities are key elements of a political settlement in Syria, “what we look for in the new Syria is a secular and democratic Syria, secular being the main operative word. What we want to avoid is religious groups, be it Muslim Brotherhood on one end to ISIS and Nusra on the other, end taking advantage of a political system.”