UAE and Iran hold rare talks in Tehran on maritime security

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — For the first time in six years, officials from Iran and the United Arab Emirates met in Tehran to discuss maritime security amid an increase in tensions in the Persian Gulf, both countries confirmed Wednesday.

This week’s meeting was significant because the UAE, a close ally of Iran’s top rival Saudi Arabia, had downgraded ties with Tehran in 2016. Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s seat of power, has long pushed for more hawkish U.S. policies toward Iran, including supporting tough American sanctions.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been at war against Iran-aligned rebels in Yemen since 2015. In recent weeks, though, the UAE has pulled thousands of its troops from Yemen as it boosts security at home.

Recent confrontations in the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial oil shipping corridor, and fears of a wider conflict have prompted the UAE to call for de-escalation and diplomacy with Iran.

In recent months, the U.S. has boosted its military presence in the Persian Gulf while Iran has begun openly exceeding limits on its nuclear activities set in a 2015 accord with world powers. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from that pact before imposing crippling sanctions on the country.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters Wednesday that his country would not be participating in a proposed U.S.-led mission to protect maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf area. Germany had previously expressed skepticism, saying that priority must be given to de-escalation of tensions and diplomatic efforts.

Several incidents have rattled maritime security in the region, starting with four oil tankers that were sabotaged off the UAE coast in May. In line with its calls for de-escalation, the UAE has declined to join Washington in blaming Iran for the attacks, which Tehran denies.

Earlier this month, Iran seized an Emirati-based ship it accused of illegally smuggling subsidized Iranian fuel abroad. The UAE has stressed the ship was neither owned nor operated by the state.

A day later, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in what some Iranian officials have suggested was retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian tanker by British authorities in Gibraltar.

An Emirati official said the Iran-UAE meeting focused on issues related to border security and navigation in shared waters, describing the talks as “nothing new” and unrelated to current tensions.

The official said there were periodic meetings scheduled between technical teams in both countries, and this was the sixth one to take place. The official was not authorized to discuss the talks with reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The state-run IRAN daily reported that a seven-member delegation from Abu Dhabi met with Iranian border and coast guard commanders in Tehran on Tuesday in the first such meeting since 2013.

Another daily, Etemad, described the meeting as an effort to boost maritime security cooperation between the two countries. It reported that the Emirati delegation met Iran’s police border guard commander, Gen. Ghasem Rezaei.

Despite pursuing rival policies in the region, the UAE and Iran have maintained links. The UAE has kept its embassy in Iran open, and Dubai remains a popular destination for Iranian tourists. Emirati citizens with Iranian heritage also maintain links with Iran, which operates a hospital, cultural club and school in Dubai.

News of the visit to Iran sparked a regional Twitter hashtag that read in Arabic: “Saudi Arabia discovers the Emirates’ betrayal.” It drew more than 73,000 tweets, but loyalists of both the Saudi and the UAE government quickly flooded the hashtag with videos and messages about the two countries’ historic and fraternal ties.

Also Wednesday, Iran dismissed as a “hypocritical gesture” an offer by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit and address the Iranian people.

“You don’t need to come to Iran,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on the sidelines of a Cabinet meeting in remarks directed at Pompeo. He suggested Pompeo instead grant visas for Iranian reporters to travel to the U.S. and interview him, accusing him of having rejected their requests.

Zarif later tweeted that rather than make an “empty and disingenuous offer,” Pompeo should accept any of the requests made by Iranian journalists to interview him and face their rigorous questioning.

On Monday, Pompeo tweeted: “We aren’t afraid of (Zarif) coming to America where he enjoys the right to speak freely.”

“Are the facts of the (Khamenei) regime so bad he cannot let me do the same thing in Tehran?” Pompeo said, referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “What if his people heard the truth, unfiltered, unabridged?”

The Trump administration has said its policies are aimed at changing Iran’s behavior in the region, not its government.

Zarif, a relative moderate within Iran’s clerically overseen political system, was an architect of the nuclear agreement. The U.S. and Iran cut off all diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the U.S. allows Iranian officials to visit United Nations headquarters in New York.


Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.