Tehran’s animosity towards Tel Aviv is well known but despite its tense relationship with the UAE, striking Dubai would be an unprecedented escalation between Gulf states and Iran.
Iran has launched a barrage of missiles at US bases in Iraq in what it said was retaliation for the killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
The attack is believed to have killed no one but Iranian media outlets claimed that 80 US soldiers were killed in the strikes.
Wednesday morning’s flare-up comes on the heels of President Trump’s threat to destroy 52 Iranian sites including some of cultural significance should Tehran respond to Soleimani’s death.
While the Iranian side says that it does not want war and the strikes concluded its ‘proportionate response’, how the US responds remains to be seen.
Iran warned that any further US attack will result in attacks on the Israeli city of Haifa, close to the Lebanese border, and the Emirati city of Dubai.
According to Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, this could be Iran’s way of reminding the US and its allies about its capacity to hurt them.
“Threatening to target these cities if attacked enables Iran to raise the stakes higher for close US allies in the region,” he said.
“Iran hopes that doing so results in Washington’s close friends in the Middle East putting more pressure on the US to back off from escalating tensions with Tehran."
Attacking Israel, in the event of an escalation, would be no great surprise given the long history of tensions between the two states, which includes Israeli strikes on Iranian interests in Lebanon and Syria and acts of terrorism committed by Iranian proxies against Israeli interests.
Iran is also well placed to attack Israeli targets due to its control of proxies in both those states.
When it comes to feasibility, Dubai too would pose no great difficulty for Iran, due to its proximity. Iranian missiles would have little difficulty finding targets in the area given the short distance of just 150 miles between Iran and the Emirati city.
The question of whether either is practically possible without a devastating impact on Iran itself is a different issue.
While Israel can certainly be hurt, the state has a massive capacity to hit back at Iranian positions in Syria, and likely even Iran itself.
As Israel has sought to play down its reaction to Soleimani’s death, it seems reckless for the Iranians to draw the Israelis into battle spaces they are trying to distance themselves from.
Focus on Syria and Iraq
“I do not think that Iran intends to strike either Israel or the Gulf directly at the moment,” King's College London academic, Dr Andreas Krieg, told TRT World.
“The current spiral of escalation is somewhat restrained by Iran and follows a clear strategic calculus focusing on the United States,” he added, explaining further that so long as Gulf states and Israel kept out of the crisis, Tehran would not include them in its retaliation calculus.
According to Krieg, Gulf states had used direct and non-direct means to ensure they do not “fall within the scope of further escalation” and that for Tehran attacking Gulf states, such as the UAE would be counterproductive for its already fragile economy.
“Dubai has absolutely no military value as a target and maintains crucial avenues for the IRGC and the Iranian deep state to generate money.
“Dubai is the gate to the world for the Iranian deep state. It would not make sense to hit it.
“Abu Dhabi has ensured recently as a way of making concessions to Tehran that Iran can continue using Dubai as a financial hub despite US sanctions.”
Nevertheless, Krieg said possible further Iranian escalation would focus on Iraq and Syria, where the US had many “soft targets”.
So if Iran does not intend to attack either Israel or the UAE, what message are its threats intended to send?
“Iran is trying to take advantage of the fact that Trump’s recent actions have not been supported by, or coordinated with Washington’s close regional allies,” said Cafiero.
“To be sure, the deep interests which the Americans and Brits have in Dubai also factor into the picture too.”