As U.S. Troops Head to Saudi Arabia, Ally UAE Talks with Iran

Coast guard officials from the United Arab Emirates have held rare talks with Iranian security officials as the U.S. shored up its military presence in the region in response to what it has claimed were provocative by the Islamic Republic.

UAE coast guard commander Brigadier General Mohammed Ali Musleh al-Ahbabi — identified in Farsi as Mohammed Ali Musbeh al-Ahbabi — held talks in Tehran Tuesday with Brigadier General Qasem Rezaee, commander of Iran's border police, as part of the sixth round of negotiations regarding cooperation across the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than a third of the world's seaborne oil traffic passes. The strategic chokepoint has been the venue for mounting international tensions regarding both commercial and military interests.

Abu Dhabi downgraded its ties with Tehran in 2016, but did not follow Riyadh and others in severing diplomatic them completely. Rezaee noted that "the Islamic Republic of Iran has long and historic relations with the UAE on various levels and topics and this relationship is still maintained among investors, fishermen and businessmen," according to Iran's official police news outlet. He suggested boosting cross-border communications to combat trafficking and "to provide facilities for businessmen, fishermen, patients and tourists to take advantage of these good relations between the two countries' peoples."

Ahbabi agreed, according to the state-run outlet. He was cited as saying that "the intervention of some governments on the front lines of navigations is causing problems in a region that has good relations," adding "we need to establish security in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman."

uae iran coast guard security
UAE Coast Guard commander Brigadier General Mohammed Ali Musleh al-Ahbabi (L) shakes hands with Iranian Police Border Guard commander Brigadier General Qasem Rezaee in Tehran, July 25. A UAE delegation traveled to the Iranian capital amid cross-strait tensions to hold the sixth round of joint maritime talks. Islamic Republic of Iran Law Enforcement Force

The rare meeting, the first of its kind since the fifth round of such talks in 2013, followed visits to Tehran by Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah on Monday and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi last week for talks surrounding regional security that Iran and the U.S. have accused one another of disrupting. Long-troubled ties between Washington and Tehran have previously led to bloodshed in the Persian Gulf region, but the latest tensions stemmed from President Donald Trump's decision to abandon a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

The agreement was also signed and continues to be supported by China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, but Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the few countries that felt threatened by the accord, worrying it did not go far enough to curb Iran's ability to obtain a nuclear weapon, its alleged support for militant groups across the region and its development of ballistic missiles. Trump shared this skepticism and withdrew in May 2018, imposing unilateral sanctions against Iran.

A year later, the situation grew increasingly critical as the U.S. began deploying additional military assets to the Middle East in response to alleged threats posed by Iran and Iranian officials announced that Europe's continued failure to defy U.S. sanctions would cause Tehran to restart uranium enrichment beyond levels banned by the agreement. Attacks in mid-May and last month targeted oil tankers of various nationalities, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in incidents the U.S. blamed on Iran.

The UAE conducted an investigation of its own, however, and Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said late last month that "we cannot point the finger in blaming any country" for the first set of attacks against four tankers as "we do not have evidence." He cautioned against coming to any preliminary conclusions as the U.K. and Saudi Arabia joined the U.S. in holding Iran responsible.

The top Emirati diplomat's words came less than a week after a high-flying U.S. Navy spy drone that took off from the UAE's Al Dhafra Air Base was shot down by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. They claimed the device crossed into Iranian territory — an account disputed by the Pentagon — and Tehran issued an official complaint with Abu Dhabi, which has increasingly called for de-escalation.

us saudi arabia military exercise
U.S. Army Central commander Major General Terry Ferrell speaks with Saudi Royal Land Forces commander Lieutenant General Fahd Bin Abdullah Al-Mutair at the Enthusiastic Commander 2019 exercise in King Khalid Military City in Saudi Arabia's Northern Region, July 25. The U.S. has sent additional troops to Saudi Arabia as part of a regional boost designed to deter Iran. Saudi Ministry of Defense

In addition to backing Saudi Arabia in its boycotts of Iran and Qatar, the UAE has also been a key player in the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war against a Zaidi Shiite Muslim group known as the Houthis or Ansar Allah and suspected receiving Iranian assistance. In an op-ed written last week for The Washington Post, however, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash confirmed earlier reports that the country was drawing down its presence in Yemen in order to "double down on the political process."

Houthi officials have repeatedly threatened to attack the UAE with the same drones and missiles they have employed against Saudi Arabia, which was set to receive up to 500 U.S. troops — the first such deployment in 16 years — as part of a boost to the Pentagon's regional presence that also included a carrier strike group and bomber task force. U.S. and Saudi forces wrapped up their two-week "Earnest Leader 2019" exercise Friday, after which Suadi army commander Lieutenant General Fahd bin Abdullah al-Mutair and U.S. Army Central commander Major General Terry Ferrell reaffirmed their commitment to joint security.

The U.S. struggled, however, to attain the same level of support from transatlantic allies as Iran seized a U.K.-flagged vessel weeks after the U.K. detained an Iranian vessel. Both countries have accused the other of breaking the law and have refused a swap, but even as the U.S. called for an international "maritime security initiative" in the Persian Gulf, the project has been met with skepticism in Europe, which has regularly criticized Trump's "maximum pressure" approach to Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran has shored up military ties with Russia as part of a new memorandum of understanding and a plan to hold joint naval drills in the northern Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. Russia has called for a regional security dialogue involving Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran and other Persian Gulf nations in a proposal also supported by China.

Update (1:10 p.m. 8/1/2019) This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the UAE downgraded its relations with Iran in 2016.