Emirati and Iranian officials held secret talks in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in September in an effort to cool Middle East tensions amid escalating violence between Tehran and Washington, according to a Thursday report.
The meeting in the UAE, a key US ally, was held behind Washington’s back, and alarmed the White House and American security officials when their intelligence agencies found out about it, The New York Times reported.
The US National Security Council convened a meeting following the revelation, worrying that Washington’s regional effort to oppose Iran could be falling apart.
The UAE is a firm ally to the US in the region, and had encouraged Washington to take an assertive stance against Tehran.
The secret meeting came amid the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of financial measures aimed at curbing Iranian aggression and nuclear ambitions. Instead of bowing to the pressure, Iran launched attacks in several countries on oil installations, fuel tankers, and US forces.
Iran sought to use the attacks to harm international oil trade, and increase prices for the US, in response to the American sanctions.
Iran also wanted to punish supporters of the US policies, and believed that US President Donald Trump had no interest in furthering American military involvement in the Middle East.
Tehran also stepped up cyber attacks against the US and its Middle Eastern allies in response to the oil sanctions, the report said.
The Iranian military response ran in tandem to a diplomatic offensive by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and was headed by general Qassem Soleimani.
Zarif and Soleimani met weekly to coordinate their efforts, and met before and after Zarif visited foreign countries, Zarif said in a recent interview.
The meeting in Abu Dhabi appeared to be a setback for a vision of the region pushed by the Trump administration, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of a unified front against Iran consisting of the US, Israel and some Sunni-majority countries.
Iranian officials, including Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, in August weighed entering talks with the US in exchange for sanctions relief, although its military continued its campaign with strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September, the report said.
Trump refrained from taking direct military action following the attack, instead sending US troops to Saudi Arabia.
Washington’s inaction prompted doubt about its commitment in its Middle East allies, including the Emiratis, especially after Trump’s firing in September of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who long advocated for a tough stance against Iran.
The UAE concluded that it could step in to lessen tensions in the region with the talks. Saudi Arabia also weighed negotiating with Iran through intermediaries in Iraq or Pakistan, with Soleimani reportedly acting to facilitate talks with both countries.
On a trip to Israel in October, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a briefing with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who told Pompeo that Iran was moving toward its goal of breaking apart the US-led front.
The gradual escalation, with both sides expecting the other to step back, led to the shocking US killing of Soleimani on January 3, and Iran’s direct attacks on bases housing US troops in Iraq, a measure Tehran had previously avoided.
The attack caused traumatic brain injuries in 109 US soldiers, the Pentagon said.
Both US and Israeli intelligence believe that Iran will remain on course rather than entering talks, despite the sanctions and killing of Soleimani, the report said.
On Thursday, Trump’s ability to hit Iran was curtailed by a bipartisan Senate measure that says Trump must win approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Eight Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the resolution by a 55-45 vote.
The Democratic-controlled House passed a separate, nonbinding war powers resolution last month.