TEHRAN — Less than a week into a key reconciliation pact with arch-foe Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic sent its security chief to the United Arab Emirates, where he was received by UAE's President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, in hopes of warmer ties, and unblocking Iran's assets .
According to the official IRNA news agency, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, sat down with Emirati national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Thursday to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues. Shamkhani is the lead negotiator for Iran in the Saudi deal brokered by China.
"I do view this trip as a meaningful start for a new phase in political, economic and security relations," Shamkhani said. He expressed Iran's readiness for "constructive engagement" and called for "cooperation to replace hostility" in the Persian Gulf region.
The top security official was accompanied by Central Bank Governor Mohammad-Reza Farzin, who took the helm three months ago in the most turbulent period for Iran's national currency, which has been plummeting due to crippling international banking sanctions. From the UAE side the meeting was also attended by UAE's Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for National Security Ali Mohammed Hammad Al Shamsi and others.
Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of #Iran met with "Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan" the President of the #UAE on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/f9a0RgfEg2— Hossein Ghazanfari (@TehranWatcher) March 16, 2023
In dire need of foreign currency reserves, the Islamic Republic has been going out of its way to unblock its assets frozen abroad, from South Korea to Iraq and the UAE. Farzin's presence in the delegation, according to Iranian pundits, was telling of his agenda. During Shamkhani's visit, the Reformist Etemad daily reported, talks will be held on the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal and sanctions relief.
According to IRNA, Shamkhani told the UAE President that the roots of regional grievances should be traced in "evil mischief from America and the Zionist regime [Israel]."
The Islamic Republic has been profoundly unsettled by the UAE's normalization pact with Israel, to the point where in 2020, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused the country's leaders of treason for entering into the Abraham Accords.
In 2016, when Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Tehran in response to Iranian hard-liners' storming of its embassy there, Abu Dhabi followed suit and downgraded ties with the Islamic Republic by recalling its ambassador.
Since 2019, however, relations have been slowly defrosting. As a sign that reconciliation was on the horizon, only this week, the Emirati ambassador to Tehran, Saif Mohamed Obaid Jasem al-Zaabi, gave assurances that the UAE will not allow its territory to be used for foreign aggression upon the Islamic Republic, according to Entekhab News Agency.
Shamkhani's visit, which he described as "neighborhood diplomacy" upon departure from Tehran, coincided with a critical moment of piling international pressure. The Islamic Republic has been widely censured for its deadly crackdown on dissent during six months of unrest triggered by Kurdish citizen Mahsa Amini's death, with the repression exposing state-nation fault lines and the Islamic Republic's crisis of legitimacy.
The stalemate in talks with the West that were hoped to salvage the crucial nuclear deal has further complicated decision-making for the Iranian leadership. In light of Shamkhani's role in the Chinese-brokered deal with Saudi Arabia and his visit to the UAE, Iranian pundits have been fiercely debating whether the moderate politician was effectively bypassing the hard-line Foreign Ministry and negotiators in the nuclear dossier.
To many, Shamkhani assuming the role has spoken volumes of the level of division in the higher echelons of power. From that perspective, the uncompromising approach adopted by the ultraconservative administration of President Ebrahim Raisi toward the nuclear deal has only intensified pressure on Iran, forcing Khamenei to grant Shamkhani — perhaps reluctantly — enough authority to arrange the deal.
There is some precedent. In the run-up to the original nuclear deal in 2015, squeezed by economic and political constraints, Khamenei made a U-turn from his signature anti-American approach and famously justified negotiations with the West as "heroic flexibility."