By Mohyeddin Sajedi
The visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the island of Abu Musa, located in the Persian Gulf, has provoked protests by the United Arab Emirates and its allies in the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council ([P]GCC). Iran contends that this island as well as the Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb belong to its territorial sovereignty and thus does not consider the visits made by its officials to the islands as provocative against any other country.
The protests by the Arab littoral states of the Persian Gulf, however, went no further than holding an extraordinary session in Riyadh and cancelling a friendly football match between Iran and the UAE. The group does not appear to be capable of doing much more.
The issue of the three islands plays no vital role in the Iran-[P]GCC relations, but is itself influenced by political variables, which are imposed on these relations. A decade ago, during the presidency of Seyyed Mohammad Khatami in Iran, the ties between Tehran and Riyadh were at their best. UAE Foreign Minister Rashid Abdullah Al Nuaimi said in a television interview that the closeness of ties between Iran and some of the [P]GCC members (Saudi Arabia) can harm the UAE interests, are not beneficial to the issue of the three islands, and encourages Iran to adopt provocative measures against the UAE.
The Saudi government fiercely responded to the protests. “Riyadh ties with Tehran do not stand comparison to those with Abu Dhabi. Unfortunately, half of the UAE belongs to Iran, half of the UAE businessmen are from Iran who see no problems for themselves. A fool is his own worst enemy,” then Saudi Crown Prince Amir Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz retorted.
At the time, to tone down the statement made by Amir Sultan, some Arab papers inserted the word “population” in his remarks, “Half of the UAE [population] belongs to Iran.” This literary ruse was the best way to justify the comments of the Saudi Crown Prince.
The Iran-[P]GCC relations have never been under the influence of the issue of the three islands, but every time the ties worsened on other accounts, the matter of three islands have been used as a tool.
Furthermore, not all the [P]GCC members see eye to eye regarding Iran. One can point to Oman and Kuwait as two member states which are reluctant to stand up against Iran for the sake of the UAE. Qatar on the other hand does not harbor as extreme a stance as those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Bahrain is itself gripped by domestic crisis and would readily welcome any anti-Iranian statement.
A large part of the UAE’s re-export has been directed toward Iran and thousands of Iranian companies are working in Dubai and the port city owes part of its economic prosperity to them. Although the UAE has regularly protested at Iran’s sovereignty over three Persian Gulf islands, it has never tried to downgrade economic and political ties with Tehran and has even tried to stay clear of the United States’ anti-Iranian sanctions.
The economic relations, however, are now turbulent as Iranian businesspeople have been facing problems opening L/C to deal in various goods. The reason is because of the acquiescence of the UAE with sanctions that the US has imposed on Iran over the country’s nuclear energy program. If the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 lead to an opening and the anti-Iranian sanctions are reduced or dismantled, the economic relations between private sectors of Iran and the UAE will naturally return to normal.
During the past few years, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] has tried to mount pressure on Iran by forming an alliance with the European Union, but has so far failed. Britain and other European states exactly know to which country the islands belong to. After the UK left the Persian Gulf region in the 1970s and gave independence to several emirates in the region …. Even the United States, which uses any pretext to put pressure on Iran, is not ready to take a clear stance on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa and has sufficed to lending support to the UAE by saying that the issue should be referred to in the international tribunal in The Hague.
Iran does not accept reference to the Hague Tribunal because it will not enter into legal debates on its sovereign right over the islands and, at most, is ready to discuss any possible “misunderstanding” with the UAE. The UAE has been urging this issue to be referred to The Hague since many years ago, but the court would be only competent to hear the case if both sides accept its jurisdiction.
The UAE and other members of (P)GCC contributed about USD 100 billion to the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in his eight-year war against Iran. They also paid a similar sum to convince Saddam withdraw from Kuwait. Squandering such a hefty wealth was only the result of lack of a lasing strategy. The Council members do not see US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein in line with their interests, but a factor that makes Iran more powerful. The crises in Syria and Bahrain will also make Saudi, Qatari, and the UAE governments think about restricting Iran’s regional influence without having a correct understanding of future developments.
Mohyeddin Sajedi is a prominent Iranian political analyst, Mohyeddin Sajedi writes extensively on the Middle East issues. He also serves as a Middle East expert at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.