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The Ambassador Speaks His Mind

English | العربية

Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: UAE Security Government Policy
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International news media coverage of remarks in July by Ambassdor Youssef al-Otaiba, the UAEs man in Washington, caused consternation and surprise because of his apparent candour on the prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran.  The UAE Foreign Ministry sought to limit the impact of his remarks by portraying them as out of context and intended as unofficial.  Yet in the US environment, Mr al-Otaiba was very much on the record both in his formal presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado on 7th July and in the public question and answer session that followed.  It is true that his widely published media interview included statements he made outside the conference room.  Yet these only enlarged on his formal points, and it, too, was on the record and on tape.   
Asked how he viewed the prospect of an Israeli or US military strike against Iran he replied: "I think it's a cost-benefit analysis.  I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what.  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 UAE."
The debate that ensued largely focused on whether these were the unguarded comments of a man who was enjoying a free-ranging debate and who temporarily forgot the potential impact of his candour or whether, in contrast, he was crystal clear on their likely import and spoke with carefully calibrated intent.
Most analysts lean to the latter interpretation.  Mr al-Otaiba is a seasoned professional diplomat who is acutely aware of the power and reach of the modern media.  Accordingly, most have concluded that his intention was to send an unequivocal message to the US and the broader international community that the UAE remains determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, whatever the short term uncertainties that might ensue.  Indeed, many commentators also testified that Mr al-Otaiba was only giving public voice to comments that they have heard many senior figures in the UAE and the Arabian Gulf express in private during the past couple years.
The UAE has many reasons to be apprehensive of Iranian hegemony.  Its seizure and continued occupation of the Gulf islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb show that Tehran has little respect for the emirates.   Irans neighbors rightly infer that a nuclear-armed Iran would become more assertive, perhaps looking to export its Islamic brand of theocracy across the waters of the Gulf.  Moreover, the UAE would be strategically vulnerable if a struggle broke out between Iran and any other state in the region.
Against this strategic prospect, not only was Mr. al-Otaiba signaling where the UAE is pitching its camp--under the US security umbrella.  He also seems keen to send a clear warning to Iran.  While the extent of the attention his remarks attracted may have caught some in Abu Dhabi and Dubai off guard, few doubt that sending this underlying message was deliberate.


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