Tiny Gulf islands rekindle big Arab-Iran dispute
AP TEHRAN THERE would seem to be enough points of tension to keep Iran and its Gulf Arab rivals fully occupied: Tehran’s nuclear programme, accusations of Iranian meddling in Bahrain’s uprising, Iranian threats to block Gulf oil shipping lanes. But it’s all been overshadowed by three contested islands that Iran wants to turn into a tourist draw.
For more than a week, the political temperature has been rising since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a surprise visit to the Gulf outpost Abu Musa, the largest in the three-island cluster controlled by Iran but also claimed by the United Arab Emirates.
On Thursday, Iran’s ground forces commander spoke for the first time about the readiness to defend the tiny islands between Iran and the UAE.
“We will not allow any country to carry out an invasion,” Gen Ahmad Reza Pourdastan was quoted as saying on state TV. “If these disturbances are not solved through diplomacy, the military forces are ready to show the power of Iran to the offender. Iran will strongly defend its rights.” It appeared to be a reply to Tuesday’s statement by senior Gulf officials pledging full support to the UAE and saying any “aggressions” would be considered an act against the entire six-nation bloc, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is led by Iran’s main regional foe Saudi Arabia.
Despite the tough talk, the chances of armed conflict still seem very remote. But the rumblings were enough for Washington to take notice.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged on Tuesday for a “peaceful resolution” of the dispute through international mediation, but noted that a visit like Ahmadinejad’s last week “only complicate efforts to settle the issue.” The motivations are still unclear for Ahmadinejad’s trip, the first by an Iranian head of state to Abu Musa since it came under Tehran’s control in 1971.
But it suddenly turned a normally back-burner Gulf dispute into a diplomatic tempest.
The UAE recalled its ambassador to Iran and hammered Tehran with harshly worded declarations that were in stark contrast to the usual cautious tones from Abu Dhabi on regional affairs.
After the UAE canceled an exhibition football match with Iran, the head of the UAE’s football federation quipped: “A friendly match should be between friends.” Abu Musa sits like a sentinel over the western edge of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, the route for onefifth of the world’s oil supply.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and US Navy warships patrol the narrow waterway, which Iran had threatened to choke off in retaliation for tougher Western sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.