The Iranian president’s recent visit to a Persian Gulf island has reawakened a long-standing but often-overlooked diplomatic dispute between the Islamic republic and the United Arab Emirates.
Foreign ministers from the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations held an emergency meeting Tuesday in Qatar to discuss Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit last week to Abu Musa, one of three Persian Gulf islands claimed by Iran and by the United Arab Emirates.
In a statement after the meeting, the GCC called on Iran to end its “occupation” of Abu Musa and voiced support “for all measures” that the United Arab Emirates might take to assert sovereignty over the islands.
“The visit comes in contradiction of the good neighbor policy embraced by the GCC countries in dealing with Iran, as well as of peaceful efforts to end the issue of the occupation of the three islands,” the statement said.
The United Arab Emirates withdrew its ambassador to Tehran after the visit — the first by an Iranian president — and canceled a soccer match between the nations. It also filed a complaint with the United Nations, proposing that the dispute be arbitrated at the International Court of Justice. Iran has refused.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner issued a statement “urg[ing] Iran to respond positively to the UAE’s initiative to resolve the issue [diplomatically]” and said that actions like Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit “only complicate efforts to settle the issue.”
According to Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Tuesday “stressed that the islands … are absolutely an inseparable part of the Iranian land.”
The diplomatic spat has highlighted an intense feud that has been overshadowed internationally by Iran’s nuclear program and other provocative actions in the region, but still touches a raw nerve in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“It’s the biggest issue in the UAE,” said Sultan Al Qassemi, a popular commentator. “It’s an issue of sovereignty.
“The UAE has been conducting secret, high-level talks with the Iranians over the past two years in which they agreed not to inflame the matter so they could solve it amicably, and then the Iranians decided to visit the island and just push the UAE’s buttons, basically.”
Iran took control of the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in 1971 after the withdrawal of British naval forces from the Gulf. The islands were administered for five decades by Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that now make up the United Arab Emirates.
Since the islands’ seizure, Iran has built facilities there, including an airport and a desalination plant, and has prevented visits by nationals of the United Arab Emirates. On Tuesday, according to Iranian state media, Iran’s Cabinet voted to make Abu Musa a “model tourist resort.”
Toby Jones, a Rutgers University professor of Middle East history, said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit was “interpreted on the Arab side of the Gulf as an affirmation of their worst fears” about Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.
“For Iran, they’re a small strategic asset, but they’re a way to remind their neighbors that they’re a serious player,” Mr. Jones said. “When Ahmadinejad visits, it sends a signal that Iran is serious about protecting its interests.
“Iran is constantly put in a position where it has to overstate its power and its ability to shape events because it feels like it’s constantly beleaguered and surrounded by all sides.”
Other analysts see a domestic dimension to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit.”I believe Ahmadinejad did this because he needs to have an enemy in the region. He needs something that will unite Iranians,” said Anwar Abdulrahman, editor-in-chief of the Bahrain-based Gulf Daily News.
Iran is experiencing increasing economic hardship and diplomatic isolation as a result of sanctions from the West over its nuclear program.
Representatives from Iran and six other world powers are set to meet over the nuclear issue on May 23-24 in Baghdad.
Both sides described talks last weekend in Istanbul as encouraging.