Diplomacy is the art of thinking twice before saying nothing, so the saying goes. Thus, blunt comments from United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba about the desirability of attacking Iran were unusual, especially because he hails from a part of the world where foreign policy is conducted mostly behind the scenes.
“We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE.” Asked if he would like to see the United States resolve the Iranian nuclear issue by force, he said, “Absolutely, absolutely. I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you are at risk. At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States. It may threaten your assets in the region, it will threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you.” Of course, once Iran completes work on an intercontinental ballistic missile, the continental United States will be directly threatened. Mr. al-Otaiba added that UAE military forces “wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat.”
Opponents of a military strike against Iran often make the case that it would lead to even greater instability in the region, something the United States cannot risk. Mr. al-Otaiba acknowledged there would be “problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what.” But the possibility of a few street demonstrations does not weigh heavily compared to the national security nightmare of a nuclear Iran. “If you are asking me, am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?” he said. “My answer is still the same.”
Tehran quickly denounced Mr. al-Otaiba’s statement. “Such harsh and crude remarks are below the dignity of the Islamic states,” said Kazem Jalali, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. Just as quickly, the UAE Foreign Ministry released a statement totally rejecting “the use of force as a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue” and claimed that the comments were “taken out of context.” Hedging aside, it’s pretty hard to misinterpret words such as “absolutely, absolutely.”
Whether Mr. al-Otaiba’s comments were a diplomatic signal or simply a moment of indiscretion is an interesting question. Either way, they reflect the rising concern in the Middle East over Iran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons and the feeble international response. The Obama administration has given the pressing Iran issue less attention than its quixotic quest for a final peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which is a misplaced priority. The Palestinian issue has been around for decades, and there is no immediate need to resolve it, even assuming that is possible. It poses no threat to the United States, and when it periodically reaches a boiling point, it can be contained. Arab states especially can live without a near-term resolution of the Palestinian issue, which does not materially affect their national interests.
As Mr. al-Otaiba made clear, a nuclear Iran would pose an immediate, existential threat to states in the Gulf region. And unlike the Palestinian problem, which can be left to simmer, the Iranian nuclear threat is on a rapidly diminishing timeline. It needs to be addressed urgently and decisively. Absolutely, absolutely.