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The Battle of Dubai: The United Arab Emirates and the U.S.-Iran Cold War
Editor's Note: Karim Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace focusing on the Middle East. Read his full report on the topic here.
By Karim Sadjadpour - Special to CNN
With the Middle East in the throes of momentous popular uprisings and its future up for grabs, Americaâ€™s long-standing concerns about the Islamic Republic of Iran have only grown more acute. U.S. officials, as well as their Arab and Israeli counterparts, now worry not only about Tehranâ€™s continued nuclear defiance but also its efforts to try and shape the popular unrest that has unsettled and unseated Arab regimes throughout the region.
Up until now, Washington has focused on two methods, broadly speaking, to contain Iranâ€™s regional influence and check its nuclear ambitions. First, it has focused on political and economic coercion, in the form of numerous unilateral, multilateral, and United Nations sanctions resolutions. Second, it has provided significant military aid to Iranâ€™s Arab neighbors. In Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, Tehran and Washington have been engaged, sometimes directly but more often via proxies and allies, in an often-violent struggle for regional power and influence.
In the tiny United Arab Emirates (UAE), a quieter, but no less fateful, battle between the United States and Iran has long been afoot in the spheres of commerce, diplomacy, and intelligence. Located just 35 miles from Iran across the Strait of Hormuz, the UAE is unique in that it combines vast networks of trade and personal relations with Iran with a close strategic relationship with Washington. Consequently, it has come to play a critical, albeit often ambiguous, role in the U.S.-Iran rivalry.
At first glance, the relationship among the three parties resembles an asymmetric triangle: A superpower (Washington) and a smaller power (the UAE) cooperate to check the ambitions of an aspiring regional power (Tehran). Their rivalries are at once geopolitical, civilizational and ideological. A closer look, however, reveals that the UAE is often torn between the interests of the oil-rich, security-focused emirate of Abu Dhabi and the business-oriented emirate of Dubai (home to the worldâ€™s largest shopping mall).
Nor is the UAE the only party with divided interests. Iran is often pulled in one direction by the ideological ambitions of its regime and in another by the pragmatic aspirations of its private merchants.
UN sanction resolutions, coupled with Iranâ€™s highly regulated and inhospitable business environment, have repelled international traders and investors from dealing directly with Iran. Dubaiâ€™s orderly and loosely regulated ports provide an attractive alternative for both licit and illicit traders wishing to do business with Iran.
Though U.S. pressure and UN sanctions have succeeded in curtailing Iran-UAE economic ties in recent months, a sizeable portion of both Iranian exports and imports continue to flow through Dubai.
Despite Dubaiâ€™s role in enabling Iran to subvert international sanctions, the UAE federal government in Abu Dhabi harbors tremendous suspicions of Tehranâ€™s â€śhegemonicâ€ť ambitions and feels acutely threatened by its nuclear program. It has consequently forged a strong strategic alliance with the United States and in recent years has attempted to exercise restraint over neighboring Dubaiâ€™s ties with Iran.
Given its conflicted relationship with Iran, the UAE has served as a kind of petri dish in which to test American policies toward Tehran. The Emirates are a prime target of international sanctions enforcement, and U.S. officials have invested considerable time and resources trying to rein in Dubaiâ€™s thriving illicit trade with Iran. The UAE is also one of the largest U.S. arms export markets. Abu Dhabi has bought some of the most sophisticated - and expensive - weaponry available.
Whatâ€™s more, in the absence of an official U.S. diplomatic presence in Tehran, Washington uses the UAE - home to some 450,000 Iranians, the second largest Iranian diaspora community in the world â€“as its primary vantage point from which to observe and interpret Iranâ€™s internal political and popular dynamics.
As Tehran inches closer to nuclear weapons capability and the U.S.-Iran rivalry for regional power intensifies, the UAE finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile its internal contradictions. It has thus far tried to walk a fine line between satisfying its ally and protector, the United States, without provoking its looming neighbor, Iran.
At the heart of the Iran-UAE-U.S. dynamic lies a simple irony: Iranian officials want the United States out of the Persian Gulf because they fear and mistrust it, yet the Gulf Arab nations want the United States to stay because they fear and mistrust Iran.
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