Chelsea slipped eight points behind leaders Manchester United as Michael Essien's superb shot rescued the Blues.
Chelsea were unhappy with Cole's first-half booking
Ashley Cole, facing old club Arsenal for the first time, picked up a booking in the first half, while a Frank Lampard shot hit the post for Chelsea.
It was Arsenal who took a 78th-minute lead against the run of play, Mathieu Flamini shooting past Henrique Hilario.
Six minutes later Essien's shot made it 1-1, with the Ghanian and Frank Lampard hitting the woodwork in stoppage time.
The draw leaves Chelsea eight points adrift of United, who have played a game more than the Premiership title-holders.
As well as deciding whether Chelsea could narrow the gap on leaders United, this game's sub-plot was Cole becoming reacquainted with his old club after his acrimonious departure earlier in the season.
For the Arsenal fans, Cole played the part of pantomime villain perfectly when he was rightly booked for an ugly challenge on Alexander Hleb midway through the first half.
The yellow card was justified but it raised the hackles of Chelsea's players, who remonstrated with referee Alan Wiley, pointing out he had earlier failed to book Philippe Senderos for a mistimed tackle on Didier Drogba.
Just past the hour the pantomime sideshow took centre stage when Jens Lehmann and Drogba engaged in some pushing, shoving and theatrical diving.
Both were booked for their antics.
As to the football, if Arsenal's game was pleasing on the eye in the way Cesc Fabregas orchestrated their attacking movements, Chelsea were altogether more brutally efficient in their modus operandi.
Brutal efficiency won out in those early stages as Michael Ballack flashed a shot past Lehmann's left-hand post, while Lampard's half-volley rattled the woodwork.
Equally rattled was Senderos, who endured a nervy start - notably when he completely miskicked in trying to clear a Claude Makelele pass.
Seven minutes before the break, Lehmann was rescued when Fabregas cleared Essien's shot off the line after the Arsenal goalkeeper was unable to gather a Chelsea corner.
At the start of the second half Arsenal took a leaf out of Chelsea's book and adopted a more direct approach, spearheaded by some strong running from Emmanuel Adebayor.
Midway through the second period, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho revamped his attack by bringing off the anonymous Andriy Shevchenko and introducing Arjen Robben and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Robben made an immediate impact, outsprinting the Arsenal defence and forcing a good save from Lehmann, who - unable to gather the ball cleanly - had to make a second stop from Lampard.
Just as Chelsea threatened to take complete control of the game, Arsenal took the lead after a sumptuous move.
That move was concluded with Hleb and Flamini swapping passes before the former Marseille midfielder swept the ball past Hilario.
At the end of November, Chelsea had to come from behind to secure a draw against leaders United, a game that highlighted how vital Essien is to Mourinho's side.
And it was Essien who came to his side's rescue, when he launched a shot that swerved its way past Lehmann.
In a frantic finish, Chelsea struck the woodwork twice in stoppage time, first through Essien and then Lampard, who hit the post after an awful error from Lehmann.
Chelsea: Hilario, Geremi (Wright-Phillips 66), Carvalho, Terry, Ashley Cole, Essien, Ballack, Makelele, Lampard, Shevchenko (Robben 67), Drogba.
Subs Not Used: Hedman, Boulahrouz, Mikel.
Booked: Ashley Cole, Drogba.
Goals: Essien 84.
Arsenal: Lehmann, Eboue, Djourou, Senderos, Clichy, Hleb, Fabregas, Silva, Flamini, Van Persie (Ljungberg 83), Adebayor.
Subs Not Used: Almunia, Julio Baptista, Hoyte, Walcott.
Booked: Flamini, Lehmann.
Goals: Flamini 78.
Ref: A Wiley (Staffordshire).