In a statement, the UAE Foreign Ministry described recorded remarks made by UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba
, at a conference in Colorado as "inaccurate." Nonetheless, the remarks offer a rare insight into the thinking behind closed doors of a key U.S. ally, and reflect mounting UAE frustration with Iran's refusal to resolve a dispute over the Islamic Republic's longstanding occupation of three strategic islands at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz.
In his remarks, Otaiba described a nuclear-armed Iran as the foremost threat to the UAE, and one that needs to be neutralized at whatever cost. In doing so, he signaled growing recognition in the Gulf that the Obama administration was unlikely to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, something that many have argued would reduce regional tension and make Iran more amenable to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia stressed the importance of the linkage during his visit to Washington last month.
Otaiba's remarks also indicated a preference between two perceived evils -- a U.S. or an Israeli strike -- should military action become a reality. Gulf officials fear that an Israeli strike would inflame popular emotions, particularly among Shiites, far more than a U.S. operation and would therefore put their regimes in a more precarious position. Ironically, Saudi Arabia last month denied reports that it would allow Israeli warplanes access to Saudi airspace in case of an Israeli pre-emptive attack.
Asked at the Colorado conference whether he would favor U.S. force to stop the Iranian nuclear program, Otaiba described the UAE as the country most threatened by Iran. Contrasting the threat against the UAE with the danger a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the U.S., Otaiba said that a nuclear Iran would "threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you. . . . Our military . . . wakes up, dreams, breathes, eats, sleeps the Iranian threat. It's the only conventional military threat our military plans for, trains for, equips for. . . . There's no country in the region that is a threat to the UAE [besides] Iran."
Otaiba's remarks followed the disclosure via satellite imagery of Iranian military installations on Abu Musa
, the largest of the three occupied islands. The installations included three missile launch pads, an elaborate underground market, and a sports field with the words "Persian Gulf" emblazoned on it -- a provocative reminder of Iran's hegemonic view of a region the Gulf states describe as the Arab Gulf. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan last month stopped short of comparing Iran's occupation of the islands to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. "Iran refuses to allow us to send teachers, doctors and nurses. I am not comparing Iran to Israel, but Iran should be more careful than others," Al Nahayan said.
The UAE has worked to ensure that its security is closely linked to U.S. and European security interests. In May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated France's first military base in the region, in Abu Dhabi. The base, which comprises three sites on the banks of the Strait of Hormuz, houses a naval and air base as well as a training camp, and is home to 500 French troops. Alongside other smaller Gulf states, the UAE has also agreed to the deployment of U.S. anti-missile batteries on its territory. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are expected to spend up to $100 billion on arms procurement in the next five years.
Despite their differences over the pace of economic integration among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the UAE and Saudi Arabia have adopted a tougher stance toward Iran than fellow member states Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, some of whom have had recent problems of their own with the Islamic republic. Kuwait disclosed in May that it had dismantled an Iranian espionage group. By contrast, Bahrain, with a majority Shiite population, is believed to be close to signing a deal for the import of Iranian gas.
With his remarks, Otaiba signaled further that the UAE was willing to pay a price for stopping Iranian nuclear proliferation, and could afford to do so now that Abu Dhabi had cemented its predominance among the UAE emirates following last year's financial crisis in Dubai. Iran has threatened retaliatory steps in response to the recent freezing by the UAE central bank of accounts of 40 entities and an individual blacklisted by the U.N. for assisting Iran's nuclear and missile programs. There have also been contradictory reports recently that UAE airports had refused to refuel flights by the Iranian airlines, Iran Air and Mahan Air. Iran does $12 billion a year worth of trade with the UAE, and relies on freewheeling Dubai, as well as Ras al Khaimah, another UAE emirate, for the import of goods, many of which fall under U.N. or U.S. sanctions.
"There will be backlash, and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and [being] very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country," Otaiba was quoted as saying in Colorado. "That is going to happen no matter what."
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."
**James M. Dorsey, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about ethnic and religious conflict.