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Israel’s Peace Deals Are a Strategic Nightmare for Iran

The Abraham Accord is threatening decades of foreign-policy planning in Tehran.

By , a research associate at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and was an intelligence analyst and foreign policy advisor with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security from 2008 to 2010, and , an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Iran's Navy Commander Admiral Habibollah Sayari points at a map during a press conference in Tehran on Dec. 22, 2010.
Iran's Navy Commander Admiral Habibollah Sayari points at a map during a press conference in Tehran on Dec. 22, 2010. Hamed Jafarnejad/AFP via Getty Images

When U.S. President Donald Trump announced the Abraham Accord, which normalized relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, on Aug. 13, the world took note of it as a historic moment. In Iran, the agreement also registered as a grave threat. In a remarkable show of unanimity, diverse officials across the political establishment denounced the accord and warned about its consequences. It was a signal of a coming, and unavoidable, change of strategy by Iran.

The day after the agreement, the Iranian foreign ministry condemned the pact as “strategic idiocy” and “a stab by the UAE in the back of Palestinian people.” One day later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued a fiery statement, dubbing the normalization “historic idiocy” that will bring about a “dangerous future” for the UAE leadership. On the same day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also weighed in with his own opprobrium, describing the accord as “betrayal” and warning that if Emiratis “allow Israel a foothold in the region, they will be treated differently.” (In response, the UAE summoned Iran’s chargé dʼaffaires in Abu Dhabi to protest against Rouhani’s “threatening” and “tension-instigating” remarks.) On Aug. 16, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri joined the chorus with a stark admonition that Iran’s policy toward the United Arab Emirates will “fundamentally change” and that “the Islamic Republic’s armed forces will view this country with a different calculus.” “If something happens in the Persian Gulf and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s national security suffers a breach, albeit minor, we will hold the UAE responsible and won’t tolerate it,” Iran’s top military commander asserted. The slew of high-profile condemnations was topped off by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s diatribe on Sept. 1, which portrayed the pact as an Emirati attempt “not only to subject the Palestinian question to oblivion, but also to allow Israel a foothold in the region.”

“The UAE both betrayed the world of Islam, and [it] betrayed Arab nations and regional countries, and [it] also betrayed Palestine,” Khamenei railed in his speech, one day after the first-ever flight was made from Israel through Saudi airspace to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, carrying top American and Israeli officials including senior White House advisor Jared Kushner—to whom Khamenei referred as “that Jew in the Trump family” in his address. “[But] of course this betrayal will not last long,” Iran’s supreme leader promised.

The key to understanding Iran’s deep apprehension about the Emirati-Israeli rapprochement lies in the potential cultivation of an Israeli “foothold” in Iran’s immediate neighborhood. In point of fact, ever since the 1979 revolution that gave birth to the Islamic Republic, Arab-Israeli schism over Palestine has supplied the Iranian revolutionary establishment with political ammunition in its ideological campaign against the “cancerous tumor” of Israel as well as the “global arrogance” of its allied “Great Satan.” But much more importantly for Iran’s national security, the animosity or alienation between Arabs and Israel has functioned as a natural geopolitical bulwark shielding core Iranian interests from hostile Israeli-American campaigns in a generally rivalrous region. More specifically, Tehran has long since relied on Arab-Israeli enmity as an organic security buffer not only to keep archfoe Israel from entrenching itself in Iran’s surroundings, geographically speaking, but also to advance its own “strategic depth” policy across the Middle East with rare convenience and efficacy.

Strategic “depth” (omgh) is also called “backup” or “buttress” (aghabeh) in the Iranian security-military literature. It refers to the ability to take the fight as close to enemy territory as possible in the event of conflict. Now the UAE-Israel normalization, which among other things spells systematic security cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the two partners against their common adversary, threatens to breach Iran’s natural buffer with Israel.

Tehran has previously shown its determination to protect this barrier. In September 2017, the IRGC actively threw its weight behind the Iraqi government of then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to thwart the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence bid, following a local referendum in favor of an independent Kurdish state. At the time, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the then-commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, repeatedly threatened to dispatch Iran-backed paramilitary forces, along with Iraqi government troops, to the oil city of Kirkuk if Kurdish fighters did not withdraw from it. A major motive for Tehran’s fierce opposition to the independence referendum was fear that Israel—which backed the initiative—would win a foothold in northern Iraq as a result.

The new Arab-Israeli alliance will likely make Iran more vulnerable to pressure campaigns and security-intelligence operations by its adversaries. Iran’s existing vulnerability was on full display in February 2018, when a team of Mossad agents successfully extracted over half a ton of top-secret nuclear documents from an obscure district in Tehran and flew them to Tel Aviv, according to noteworthy speculations in the Iranian intelligence community, after transferring the haul through the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, a key Israeli ally in Iran’s northern neighborhood. Iran has historically attached much greater strategic significance to its western and southern flanks than it has to northern neighbors—which are largely viewed in Tehran as Russia’s backyard in the first place. Arab-Israeli cooperation, facilitated by the United States under Trump, will further expose these weaknesses.

But these cracks in Iran’s regional security buffer haven’t only enabled such cloak-and-dagger strikes. They have also made Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy of economic asphyxiation against Tehran more effective and painful than his predecessor’s sanctions campaign. Increased Arab collaboration with Israel and the United States has helped the latter obstruct clandestine financial channels and escape valves traditionally used by Iranian authorities and institutions to evade U.S. sanctions.

The emerging Arab-Israeli alliance, exemplified by the Emirati-Israeli normalization, also augurs poorly for Iran’s typically successful pursuit of strategic depth across the Middle East. According to media sources in Turkey—a major UAE rival and opponent of its rapprochement with Israel—Emiratis are affording Israel a unique opportunity to set up “spy bases” on the UAE-controlled island of Socotra south of Yemen. The UAE’s facilitation of Israeli security engagement in the Gulf of Aden could fuel long-standing subterranean tensions in the area even after the Yemen war—pitting Iran-allied Houthi rebels against Saudi-backed forces—potentially ends. A similar kind of covert Iranian-Israeli animosity has already transpired in parts of Africa, with Arab partners traditionally favoring Israel over Iran, and if recent history is any guidance, there is no reason to believe it will not repeat itself in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Sea, which are of greater strategic importance to Tehran.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a comprehensive opening with regional Arab states, not least the Saudi-led bloc, enjoys cross-partisan backing in Tehran—unlike negotiations with Washington, which are hard for Iranian leaders to rationalize and sell under the humiliating pressure of economic sanctions and following the U.S. assassination of Suleimani. All told, the UAE-Israel diplomatic breakthrough is likely to aggravate Tehran’s extant perception of “strategic encirclement” and might provoke it to act more aggressively and with much less restraint in its neighborhood. That’s perhaps what Iran’s chief of staff, Bagheri, means by a “different calculus”—unless a face-saving off-ramp strategy is devised to break the ongoing cycle of confrontation.

Maysam Behravesh is a research associate at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Lund University, Sweden. He was an intelligence analyst and foreign policy advisor with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) from 2008 to 2010. Twitter: @MaysamBehravesh

Hamidreza Azizi is an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He was an assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University (2016-2020) and a guest lecturer at the department of regional studies at the University of Tehran (2016-2018). On Twitter: @HamidRezaAz