The main umbrella group of American Jewish organizations is set to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi next month in a sign of the growing concern among Sunni regimes over Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions.
The trip, by a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to the main power centers of the United Arab Emirates, is notable because the Sunni-majority UAE does not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel. The trip also comes amid a flurry of consultations between Washington, its regional allies and Israel about steps to counter Iran’s influence in the region, first and foremost in Iraq but also in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.
“The UAE is a critically important place on the issue of terrorism, the fight against extremism and Iran,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, a 51-member umbrella organization that serves as the Jewish community’s main collective voice on Middle East affairs. “We want to see improved relations with the U.S., of course, but also hope that this can foster relations with Israel.”
The UAE has no diplomatic ties with Israel and still adheres to the primary Arab boycott against trade with the Jewish state. Even though it abandoned the so-called secondary and tertiary boycotts against third-party firms that trade with Israel, the American Jewish delegation will not be flying directly from Israel; instead it will travel via Amman, Jordan, to reach the UAE.
According to Hoenlein, the UAE government extended an invitation a few months ago and then the American Jewish umbrella group received approval from both the American and Israeli governments to respond positively.
The upcoming visit is slated to include meetings with senior government officials, as well as with business and religious leaders.
Whether the trip could end up opening some diplomatic relations with Israel — as a previous one in 1995 helped lay the groundwork for such ties between Israel and Qatar — remains an open question.
Representatives of Israel and of the UAE held talks last year about opening a low-level Israeli interest office in Abu Dhabi, but little progress was made at the time. The trip to the Gulf region will precede the group’s annual mission to Israel, scheduled for the second week of February.
Iran is expected to be a topic at some of the meetings in the UAE. Still, despite widespread Sunni concerns about Iran, experts believe that the UAE is unlikely to confront Tehran publicly.
Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council “share many of our concerns about what the Iranians might intend, but they do not necessarily agree with our chosen means: verbal confrontation, threats, futile attempts at diplomatic isolation,” said David Mack, acting president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former American ambassador to the UAE. “They all have diplomatic relations with Iran and, in some cases, considerable trade.”
Indeed, Iran has very close economic ties to Dubai, the region’s leading business hub; as such, the emirate is key to American efforts to tighten the financial pressure on the mullah regime. In recent weeks, the U.S. Treasury Department has issued directives barring two Iranian state-owned banks from accessing American financial markets, because of the banks’ alleged role in supporting terrorism and procuring weapons.
In addition, the Bush administration has been pressuring European and Asian corporations to downgrade their presence in Iran. American officials have met UAE officials, too, to discuss Iran’s business interests in Dubai.
One factor that works in the administration’s favor is the UAE and the Gulf countries’ growing worries about Tehran’s nuclear program. In a major speech on Iraq last week, President Bush confirmed that the United States would send an additional carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, as well as provide Patriot anti-missile defense systems to members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC.
Last year, Tehran signaled to the GCC states that it would retaliate against them if the United States attacked Iran using bases on their soil. Since Tehran’s most likely weapon would be ballistic missiles, deploying Patriots would protect the GCC states against a potential Iranian strike.
In addition to the concerns of America’s allies in the region about Tehran’s ascendancy, the Bush administration has ratcheted up its efforts to stem Iran’s influence in Iraq.
The administration has in effect rejected the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group about the need to engage Iran and Syria, by issuing repeated warnings to Tehran about its meddling in Iraq and by taking more aggressive action on the ground.
Bush signed an order authorizing the disruption of Iranian activities in Iraq, which resulted in the arrest of several Iranian officials suspected of providing bomb-making materials during two American military raids conducted over the past month. In addition to protests from the Iranian and Iraqi governments, the operations ignited speculation about possible American military incursions into Iran.
“The incremental raids and arrests may be aimed at provoking the Iranians to respond, which in turn would escalate the situation and provide the Bush administration with the casus belli it needs to win Congressional support for war with Iran,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and an advocate of engaging Tehran. “Instead of making the case for a pre-emptive war with Iran over nuclear weapons, the sequence of events in the provocation and escalation strategy would make it appear as if war was forced on the U.S.”
In another sign of the geopolitical realignment in the region, London’s Daily Telegraph reported last week that Bush had authorized the CIA to take covert action to help the embattled Lebanese government against Hezbollah, with the support of both Saudi Arabia and Israel. The classified “non-lethal presidential finding” reportedly allows the agency to provide financial and logistical support to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora but bars the agency from physically targeting Hezbollah officials.