Iran and Turkey sing from the same sheet of music against Israel-UAE rapprochement
“The bowl that’s hotter than the soup” is a popular Persian expression describing a person more invested in others’ affairs than a source of authority on those affairs. It is also a fitting idiom for today’s Middle East, particularly Turkey and Iran, which are two majority Muslim but non-Arab powers that strongly condemned the latest iteration of Arab-Israeli peace: a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
What makes their condemnation ironic, is that while in 2020 the UAE became the third Arab country to recognize Israel — after Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) — Turkey and Iran were, long ago, the first (1949) and second (1950) majority Muslim nations, respectively, to establish relations with the Jewish state. Ankara’s convergence with Tehran, both in terms of policy and rhetoric, is a reflection of the tectonic shifts that are reconfiguring alliances in the broader Middle East by bringing Israel and select Arab states closer together.
Although Turkey and Iran have competed over regional hegemony for centuries, more recently, they have exhibited a willingness to “compartmentalize” their rivalry and make the most of any tactical convergence — be it through sanctions-busting or anti-Kurdish policies, for example. The engine behind this convergence has been the same: Islamist state capture, first via a popular revolution in Iran (1979) and then using the ballot box in Turkey (2002). Its results have led to a more robust assault against the U.S.-led world order, as well as a nosedive in relations with Israel and other U.S. partners in the Middle East. The ascendancy of political Islam in Iran and Turkey also helps explain why their leaders champion rivals to the United States and its regional partners, and in effect, style themselves as “supporters” of the Palestinian and other rejectionist causes.
On cue, Iranian officials framed the agreement as “a betrayal to the Islamic Ummah [nation],” and as a “treacherous action.” But while military support for Palestinian rejectionist groups animates political elites, it appears to have little support among the population. Slogans from protests dating back to 2009 (and until present) reveal a desire for a foreign policy less obsessed with Israel and a government more attentive to domestic needs. A 36-year-old Iranian single-mother whom Reuters recently quoted best encapsulates this sentiment: “I don’t care about the Palestinian cause, I don’t care about regional politics. I care about my family,” she said.
Such sentiment matters not, though, for the Kayhan newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is reportedly a confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader and a cheerleader for hardline policies. In response to the deal, Kayhan’s front-page headline claimed that the UAE was now, “a legitimate target for the Resistance.” Further elaborating that this was the third Arab “betrayal” of the Palestinians (noting Egypt and Jordan’s accords with Israel), Kayhan worryingly noted that the Emirates was the “first Arab state in the Persian Gulf area” to make peace.
Iran has always seen the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as jurisdictions ripe for hedging against America. For instance, despite the centrality of the Gulf to Washington’s maximum pressure campaign, Tehran continued to use front companies located in the Emirates to help bust sanctions, sometimes even openly, as in the case of petrochemical sales. Another example was the escalation on full display last summer by Iran, first in the maritime domain, and then against a U.S. drone. The recipient of these signals? The UAE, which as noted in The Washington Post, despite being called “little Sparta,” was withdrawing troops in Yemen (where Iran-backed Houthis are fighting) and commencing a maritime security dialogue with Tehran. The cherry on the sundae was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s use of an Arabic proverb at the UN General Assembly last year to warn the GCC against seeking external security guarantees.
Seen in this light, the peace agreement reads as a failure of Iran’s intimidation policy. Nevertheless, the regime is doubling down. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has warned of “a dangerous future for… the residents of the glass palace,” alluding to Emirati security as fragile, while a hardline clerical association cautioned that the UAE would bear the “cost” of this move. Tehran has not been afraid to back these words with deeds, and recently detained a UAE vessel.
For Ankara’s part, their foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the deal, using a tone reminiscent of the Islamic Republic. Ankara accused the UAE of attempting “to present its betrayal to the Palestinian cause as an act of altruism” and vowed, “The history and the conscience of the people in the region will never forget or forgive this hypocritical act.” Three days later Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his intention of “suspending diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi leadership or pulling back our ambassador.”
Although the Palestinian cause was central to the Turkish government’s rhetoric, Ankara’s reaction to the UAE has more to do with Erdogan’s deepening rivalry with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), who has emerged as the leader of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood camp in the region. A columnist in Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah claimed that Abu Dhabi’s “decision to normalize relations with Israel is not directed at Iran” but stems from the UAE’s desire “to build a concrete axis against Turkey and Qatar.”
Indeed, Erdogan, who acts as the leading patron of the Muslim Brotherhood globally, sees MBZ as the key culprit for the Brotherhood’s reversal of fortunes across the Arab world. Turkey’s Islamists believe that an MBZ-led alliance in the Gulf has been behind all calamities befalling Turkey from the failed coup attempt in 2016 and the devaluation of the Turkish currency to the armed insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Analysts have often pointed a finger to political Islam as a culprit for the lack of relations between Israel and majority Muslim states. Ironically, the respective Islamist ambitions of majority-Sunni Turkey and majority-Shiite Iran, and their growing ability to act in unison to simultaneously challenge the U.S.-led world order, traditional Arab monarchies, and Israel, has complicated that analysis.
It is true that the promise of win-win relations in business, technology, intelligence, and security continues to pull Israel and Arab states towards one another. But the push factor from Islamists in Ankara and Tehran appear to have been the magic touch with the UAE — and possibly others waiting to happen.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD) think-tank in Washington, D.C., where Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish Parliamentarian, is the senior director of the Turkey program.