Island Row Heats Up Persian Gulf

April 16, 2012  

Tehran on Monday rattled its saber at its Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf warning things could become “very complicated” in an islands dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned that the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – should exercise caution on the eve of talks over three tiny islands in the Gulf and claimed by both Iran and the UAE.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infuriated the UAE by visiting one of them, Abu Musa, on April 11 and asserting in a speech that historical records proved “the Persian Gulf is Persian,” as state media called his trip a purely “domestic issue.”

The dispute over the islands has been at the International Court of Justice for decades.

Abu Dhabi recalled its ambassador to Tehran and lodged a protest to the United Nations over the visit. On Monday, it also summoned Iran’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi to complain.

Salehi indicated that although Iran wanted good relations with the UAE, “our rule over the islands is not negotiable, and Iran’s sovereignty over the islands is certain and on the record.”

He added: “We hope that the other side acts with patience, perseverance, insight and prudence regarding the misunderstandings that could arise, or else issues will become very complicated.”

Iran Daily, a government newspaper that publishes in English, wrote in an editorial that Abu Musa “belongs to Iran having more than 7,000 years of Iranian history and culture.”

It went on to declare that that was “a history hundreds of times older than newly-established sheikhdoms which until a short period ago were nothing but small tribal communities … permitting them to have a short stay on these islands to escape the hot desert weather and be able to graze their sheep in Abu Musa.”

Arabs going to the islands were considered “miserable peasants” and “poor servants” by the Iranian monarchs, Iran Daily added.

The newspaper also criticized Britain, which it said “cut out many Iranian territories” and made them “stand-alone nations on the southern side of the Gulf.”

It said that Iran “did not have any policies to demand the return of what belonged to Iran” but it will not accept “giving away even an iota of Iranian land.”

Iran, then under the rule of the Western-backed shah, gained control of the islands of Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb in 1971, as Britain granted independence to its Gulf protectorates and withdrew its forces.

Abu Musa, the only inhabited island of the three, was placed under joint administration in a deal with Sharjah, now part of the UAE.

Abu Dhabi says the Iranians have since taken over the entire island, which controls access to the oil-rich Gulf, and have installed an airport and military base on Abu Musa.

Analysts say control of Abu Musa is a significant asset should Tehran seek to close the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, as it has threatened to do in the past.

The island row comes amid a period of high tensions between Tehran and the GCC, which openly accuses the Islamic republic of meddling in their affairs, stirring up unrest among their Shiite populations, and seeking to destabilize their regimes.

Since the onset of the Arab Spring in early 2011, GCC members have made moves to transform the cooperative council into a unified military and diplomatic confederation that would serve as a strategic bulwark against Iran.

They have also made moves to expand the council – eyeing Egypt, Jordan, and perhaps Morocco – and to increase military cooperation with the United States and Europe.

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