I am sometime surprised by small events. Not long ago one of our allies in the Middle East made some comments which were surprisingly "hawkish" in support of the the United States. The Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, Yousef al-Otaiba, at a conference in Aspen, Colorado said "We cannot live with a nuclear Iran, I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE."
Tehran was quick to issue a stern warning from a leading MP of a "teeth-breaking" response to these "harsh and crude" remarks and a possible ban on Iranian travel to the Gulf state, which does billions of dollars of trade annually with Iran.
In an effort to cool tempers the UAE foreign ministry called the reported comments "inaccurate and taken out of context", but the comments were recorded by the Atlantic Magazine, which organized the conference. The ministry emphasized that the UAE wants a peaceful solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
This quarrel follows Iran's decision to scale back economic relations with the UAE after Abu Dhabi implemented the latest United Nations sanctions punishing Iran for ignoring demands over their nuclear program.
The argument is part of a wider nervousness in the Gulf about Iran. The UAE is has been in dispute with it over three islands since 1971. In addition, a controversy developed in nearby Kuwait recently over an alleged spy ring for Iran's Revolutionary Guard. To calm the situation, the government banned reporting on the matter. The respected Arab commentator Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed wrote in the daily Asharq al-Awsat that ``Obama and his refusal to use the threat of force in a genuine manner has made everybody -- not just Tehran -- believe that nothing will stop the Iranian project.''
There are concerns elsewhere about Iranian subversion against the Sunni Arab monarchies. For example, a Sunni group claimed responsibility for several bombs in an Iranian Mosque last week which killed several key members of the Revolutionary Guard.
Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador, was quoted as saying that he "absolutely" wanted the US to use force to halt Iran's nuclear program. "Countries in the region view the Iran threat very differently," he said. "I can only speak for the UAE, but talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous. Iran doesn't have nuclear power now but … what makes me think that once they have a nuclear program, we are going to be able to be more successful in containing them?"
We have heard similar sentiments before. When the Saudi Foreign Minister visited Washington in February, he uttered the usual support for a diplomatic process. But he warned that history shows when a weapon is introduced in the Middle East, it ends up being used. Then he noted that sanctions are a long-term approach and ``we need immediate resolutions rather than gradual resolution.''
In another example of Saudi nervousness a Saudi cleric Aidh al-Qarni wrote a column entitled "Oh Arabs, Iran is Coming", saying the West would not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, which Tehran would then aim at Arabs, not Israelis.
Analysts and diplomats are aware such views are often expressed in private by officials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. "Otaiba's remarks may or may not be a gaffe but they certainly reflect official thinking in Abu Dhabi," said Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Durham University. "They want to see more American boots on the ground, and they don't want to live in the shadow of a nuclear Iran."
Davidson pointed out that the UAE is open to accusations of sanctions-busting because Dubai, the closest to Iran of the UAE's seven emirates, is a key trans-shipment point for the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran and the UAE have close economic ties. Thousands of Iranian companies and businessmen operate in the country and bilateral trade is estimated at $10bn (£6.6bn) a year, mostly made up of Iranian imports.
Last week the UAE central bank asked financial institutions in the federation to freeze the bank accounts of 41 Iranians, including the managers of key companies owned by the Revolutionary Guards. The UAE also closed 40 international and local firms accused of shipping contraband and banned dual-use goods to Iran.
July 20, 2010: On This Day in History:
1810 Columbia declares independence from Spain
1868 First tax on cigarettes
1881 Sitting Bull surrenders
1944 US invades Guam
1969 First Man on the Moon
Now, something different, a real shark attack, by 2 Great Whites: