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Iran’s top security official to visit UAE as regional ties thaw

Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, will visit the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, the latest sign of improving relations between the Islamic Republic and the Gulf state.

The high-profile visit comes after Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed last week to restore diplomatic ties within two months, ending a seven-year rift. The deal between Middle Eastern powers is part of a China-brokered agreement signed by Shamkhani and his Saudi foreign minister in Beijing.

Iranian analysts say Shamkhani has extra credibility as a regional dealmaker because the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has appointed him secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council.

Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian political analyst, said that “the fact that Shamkhani is directly involved in such talks shows that the Islamic Republic is determined to improve relations with the Arab states in the “Gulf region”. He added that Shamkhani’s priorities in this week’s talks should be ending the nine-year conflict in Yemen and easing foreign currency transfers to Iran.

Nournews, which is affiliated with Iran’s main security group, said Thursday’s visit to Abu Dhabi was in response to a December 2021 visit to Iran by UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Sheikh Tahnoon also made a secret visit to Iran in 2019 to help ease tensions between the two neighbors after the US blamed Iran for an attack on an oil tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The attacks raised fears in Abu Dhabi that Tehran could target the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally, in retaliation for tough sanctions imposed by then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

Last year, drone attacks on the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, which Iran-aligned Houthi rebels claimed in Yemen, underscored its vulnerability to attack. The Gulf state, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020, has also been keen to distance itself from any potential military action against Iran by the Jewish state.

Senior economic, banking and security officials will accompany Shamkhani for talks on bilateral, regional and international issues, Nournews said. Over the past decade, Iran has used businesses in the UAE’s commercial hub to circumvent damaging U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, according to analysts.

The UAE has been one of Iran’s largest trading partners for decades, even during difficult times between the two countries. The latest official data from Tehran showed that goods worth $13.6 billion were imported into Iran via the Gulf states, accounting for 30.7% of total imports in the first 10 months of this year’s Iranian year that ends next week.

Relations between the UAE and Iran soured after Iranian militias attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in 2016 to protest the Saudi execution of a senior Shia cleric. In response, the UAE recalled its ambassador from Tehran. It resumed full diplomatic ties last year after an initial settlement.

Tehran’s latest diplomatic move has raised hopes among many Iranians and the country’s business community that Iran’s hardline leaders may be preparing to restart the 2015 nuclear deal with global powers. But despite the thaw in regional relations, Iranian leaders have not sent strong signals that they are ready to return to the nuclear deal. Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018.

“Iran has no choice but to finally make concessions to the United States because the two sides have reached a dead end in dealing with each other, but for now the Iranians are relieved that foreign policy is making some progress,” Lailaz said.

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