U.A.E. Ambassador Supports Military Option Against Iran

Jul 8, 2010

by Anna Newby


In a public interview session with The Atlantic magazine on Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba publicly endorsed the “military option” for countering Iran’s controversial nuclear program and said that the benefits of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities may outweigh the costs.
When asked whether he supported the U.S. taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program, he responded:
"Absolutely, absolutely. I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you are at risk. At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the  continental United States. It may threaten your assets in the region, it will threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you."
Although some Arab diplomats have made similar comments in private, this remark is unique in its bluntness (“stunningly candid,” in the words of Rep. Jane Harman of California, a former ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee). Al-Otaiba said: “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the U.A.E.” He acknowledged that a military operation against Iran would certainly have 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.”
He also noted that the UAE currently conducts a large amount of trade with Iran, approaching $12 billion. Dubai has been a major banking center for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the country’s central bank asked financial institutions to freeze 41 accounts of Iranian individuals and companies in accordance with United Nations Security Council sanctions.
Ambassador al-Otaiba also said that the U.A.E would not engage with a nuclear-armed Iran, but expressed the fear that others in the region would “dump their alliances with the U.S. in favor of ties with Tehran if President Obama does not stop the Islamic republic’s quest to become a nuclear power,” according to the Washington Times. He also predicted a nuclear arms race in the region, were Iran to unveil a nuclear weapon. Moreover, he voiced skepticism in the value of deterrence and containment, noting that Iran thus far has not been deterred from other aggressive activity like supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
The ambassador’s remarks have since been retracted by Assistant Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Tareq Al-Haidan, who says that the Emirates rejects military against Iran’s nuclear sites. Al-Haidan asserted that the ambassador’s comments were taken out of context.
The remarks apparently did not surprise former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who asserted that the ambassador was “only speaking the truth from his perspective.” Arab leaders view a pre-emptive strike as “the only alternative,” according to Bolton, and worry that the Obama administration’s approach will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy commented that Arab concerns about Iran are increasing:
“Important Arab officials have privately indicated to me personally and to my colleagues that they would prefer an American military strike on Iran to an Iran with nuclear weapons. However, one can never be certain what they are saying in private to other audiences.”
In the Obama administration, officials – including Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen – have not ruled out the option of a military strike, but have repeatedly sought to play it down due, in part, to fears that Iran would respond by disrupting oil flow in the Strait of Hormuz or by supporting terrorist attacks against the U.S.
The reaction from Tehran was, not surprisingly, sharp. Kazem Jalali, a spokesman for the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, called the ambassador’s comments “foul” and reportedly said that Iran may bar travel to the neighboring U.A.E. He added that the Emirati government should clarify what is official government policy.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic correspondent who conducted the interview with al-Otaiba, issued a response yesterday on his blog:
as much as I'd like to claim a big scoop here, the ambasador's position, though stated more plainly, and publicly, than usual, is the standard position of many Arab states. It is not only Israel that fears the rise of a nuclear Iran; the Arabs, if anything, fear such a development to a greater degree. The Jews and Arabs have been fighting for one hundred years. The Arabs and the Persians have been going at for a thousand. The idea of a group of Persian Shi'ites having possession of a nuclear bomb scares Arab leader like nothing else -- it certainly scares them more than the reality of the Jewish bomb.
Some commentators have expressed full agreement with the ambassador, while others reject any military action against Iran’s nuclear program. The spat highlights a sense of nervousness among Gulf states regarding Tehran’s nuclear pursuits: as Christopher Davidson of Durham University argues, the remarks may have been gaffe, “but they certainly reflect official thinking in Abu Dhabi,” and perhaps other regional capitals as well. Among other things, this incident draws to light is the nature of the discourse about how to respond to Iran’s nuclear pursuits. The common notion seems to be that the international community can either accept a nuclear-armed Iran, or bomb its facilities in a pre-emptive strike. While these options are certainly important to consider, the discussion may benefit from additional attention to broader diplomatic, economic, and multilateral strategies vis-à-vis Iran.