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UAE-Iran to Boost Ties as Nuclear Talks Near

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Opec members Iran and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to improve relations after years of tension, partially resulting from the conflict in Yemen and Abu Dhabi’s decision to normalize ties with Tehran’s arch foe Israel.

The two sides agreed to strengthen relations “on the basis of good neighborliness and mutual respect,” after a meeting between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, and diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, Anwar Gargash, as well as Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalifa Shaheen Almarar, the UAE’s state news agency Wam reported.

The Mideast Gulf neighbors would also work “to achieve more stability and prosperity in the region, and developing economic and trade relations,” according to the Wam report Wednesday. Regional and international developments of common interest would also be addressed.

The rare meeting took place in Dubai, a traditional trading partner of the Islamic republic and home to a large Iranian expatriate population.

It came amid expectation that the UAE’s National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, who is also the younger brother of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, will travel to Tehran soon.

Soothing Strained Relations

Iran’s relations with its Mideast Gulf neighbors took a turn for the worse after Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed opposing sides in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria among other areas of disagreement over the past decade. Tehran also criticized the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel in 2020.

But since his inauguration in August, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has made a priority of developing Iran’s ties with the region, at least partly as a way of resisting US sanctions, and has expressed his willingness to improve strained ties with neighboring Gulf states.

As Iran expert Esfandyar Batmanghelidj has noted, the UAE has played a key role as an intermediary in the sale of sanctioned Iranian oil to China, and as a major re-export hub it has now replaced China as Iran’s top import partner.

As Emirati officials play their part in de-escalating tensions, Saudi Arabia has also signaled interest in improving ties with its main regional rival, a strategic shift informed by a sense of abandonment by the US administration of President Joe Biden.

Riyadh and Tehran have held four rounds of “tension-easing” talks in Baghdad, although the talks have been on pause since Iraq’s elections last month and it is not clear when they will resume, or what substantive progress has been made so far.

Vienna Talks in Focus

Bagheri Kani’s visit comes ahead of the resumption on Monday of negotiations between Iran and the US in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and restoring curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. They have been suspended since June.

But the mood is darkening in Western capitals, given Iran’s rapid nuclear advancements; the increasingly limited oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the uncompromising language of the new Iranian negotiating team.

After visiting Tehran on Tuesday, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi reported that talks with Iran about monitoring its nuclear program — and the access of the UN nuclear watchdog’s inspectors — had proved inconclusive.

“We are still talking but not in terms of dotting an 'i' or crossing a 't.' ... We are close to the point where I would not be able to guarantee continuity of knowledge," Grossi told a quarterly meeting of the agency’s board.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian gave a different interpretation of his talks with Grossi, describing them as “cordial, frank and fruitful” and saying an agreement was possible.

But the UK, France and Germany, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, warned in a joint statement Wednesday that Iran’s continued escalations were “irreversibly reducing the counterproliferation value of the JCPOA.”

“The perception here in Washington is that [the Iranian negotiating team] are going to drag their feet while they’re accelerating their nuclear program, so that eventually the US would be forced to make the concessions,” Ali Vaez, Iran project director with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, told a webinar Wednesday.

Such a policy was unlikely to succeed, he argued, because the current situation — namely, Iran’s growing standoff with the IAEA and a nuclear program that “is growing exponentially by the day” — was not sustainable.

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