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The ever-expanding terrorist group known as Islamic State certainly threatens the Middle East, but Iran’s ongoing efforts to destabilize other Muslim countries throughout the Arab world represents a much bigger danger in the long run.

At least that’s how Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates sees things.

In a Jan. 29 speech to more than 100 people at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies, Al Otaiba said the UAE is the only Arab country to have participated in six military missions alongside the United States — including operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Somalia and Libya — and that it currently hosts more than 4,000 U.S. personnel at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi.

“Let me be clear about what we’re fighting for,” he said. “We entirely reject the notion that we are doomed to perpetual conflict in the Middle East. We believe there is enough room — in geography, theology and economy — for everyone. But first, like-minded people and countries such as the UAE and the U.S. must meet the immediate challenge of extremism and aggression in the region.”

Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, speaks Jan. 29 at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Photos: Larry Luxner

To that end, he said, ISIS represents “an existential threat” to the Middle East.

“It’s a creeping cancer directly responsible for the death and displacement of millions of people, most of whom are Muslims. A wave of ISIS-directed extremism reaches deep into Europe, America and Asia. We’ve seen the murderous spread of ISIS, most recently in Jakarta and Istanbul,” he argued. “ISIS is not Islamic, and the war against ISIS is not a war against Islam. On the contrary, it’s a battle to save Islam from an ideology that has hijacked an entire religion.”

But Al Otaiba, who’s represented the UAE in Washington since July 2008, said defeating the ideology of ISIS will take more than force alone.

“To win, it’s not enough to describe what we are against. We must do a better job of articulating what it is we are for,” he said. “The UAE is taking the lead in a new ideology guided by the phrase, ‘in the name of God, the most merciful and most compassionate.’ That’s the Islam I know and respect.”

An Iranian cargo ship docks at Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. According to Al Otaiba, the UAE has the most to gain from peaceful relations with Iran.

Yet the country Al Otaiba represents — a wealthy Sunni Muslim desert nation of 9.2 million that’s home to the world’s tallest skyscraper, its busiest airport and some of its most lavish shopping malls — is also terrified of the powerful Shi’ite Muslim country that sits on the other side of the Persian Gulf.

“Iran can either be a state or a revolution, but it can’t be both,” the ambassador warned. “We applaud President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for addressing the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. No country has more to gain from a peaceful, productive Iran than we do. Our costs are less than 21 miles apart. We have significant trade ties, and we see enormous opportunities for greater economic and cultural links.”

As such, he said, the UAE is ready to extend a hand in friendship if Iran is willing to unclench its fist.

“But unfortunately, that hand is still clenched,” Al Otaiba said, ticking off a long list of Tehran’s provocations — beginning with the 1971 seizure of three Emirati islands in the Gulf just before the UAE declared its independence, to the December 2015 firing of unguided rockets dangerously close to a U.S. aircraft carrier, and the testing of ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929.

Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, answers a question posed by John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, during a Jan. 29 panel at CSIS.

“In Palestine, in Iraq and in almost every country in the region, Iran is funding, arming and enabling radical, violent and subversive cells. And closer to home here in Washington, it was just a few years ago that Iran plotted to assassinate my friend [former Saudi Ambassador] Adel Al Jubeir,” he said.

Only a week ago, the ambassador noted, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation voted 55-1 to denounce Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of other states.

“Just as we have much to gain from increased exchanges with Iran, we also have much to lose in the face of continued Iranian aggression,” he warned. “ISIS may be a more immediate threat and its barbaric methods are certainly more headline-grabbing, but if Tehran continues to ignore opportunities for reconciliation, Iran’s influence will ultimately prove to be more destabilizing than ISIS.”

Downtown Dubai, largest city of the United Arab Emirates, as seen from the 124th floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper.

More specifically, Al Otaiba condemned Iran’s support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, noting that “we continue to wait for more promising signs from Iran. But at the same time, we must remain watchful and prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend the security of the UAE and our friends.”

During a Q&A that followed Al Otaiba’s speech, CSIS President and CEO John Hamre asked the ambassador what will happen now that international sanctions against Iran will be lifted following the regime’s agreement to stop developing nuclear weapons.

“What the nuclear deal has done is take one significant threat off the table, at least for the next 10 to 15 years. That should give us the opportunity to address everything else in a far more rational way,” he said. “Now we need to address Iran’s regional behavior, which to many countries is a far bigger threat than the nuclear problem.”

Women dressed in hijabs are a common sight throughout the Persian Gulf — even outside the upscale Dubai Mall.

Al Otaiba added: “I would like to see this moderate element within Iran that negotiated the nuclear deal be applied to regional policies. I want to see Iran stop sending weapons to Yemen, and supporting Shi’ite militias in Syria. Our chances of resolving Yemen are much better than resolving Syria.”

Asked by a member of the audience about his country’s relations with Israel — given that both the UAE and the Jewish state seem to view Iran with equal dread — the ambassador answered simply: “We don’t have any.”

He then elaborated: “It’s very difficult for most Arab countries to have relations with Israel until there’s a resolution to the Palestinian issue. We’ve said publicly that we’d be one of the first countries to have relations with Israel, based on the 1967 borders. The Arab peace initiative was designed to do just that; we call it the 22-country solution. But that never materialized.”

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.



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