By Arab News
By Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
How did the Iranian government prepare for the Istanbul Conference convened Saturday to discuss its nuclear program? How did it demonstrate its good will toward neighbors and desire for serious dialogue with the international community?
And finally, how did Iran showcase its diplomatic skills when it was in the spotlight and the eyes of the world were following every move it was making?
The Istanbul meeting was held on Saturday April 14. You would think that Iran might be better served by demonstrating some good will toward its neighbors to reduce pressure in Istanbul. Instead, however, on Wednesday April 11, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decided to visit the UAE island of Abu Musa, occupied by Iran since 1971, together with two other UAE islands (Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb), a visit that was accompanied by loud nationalistic fanfare. Was this move a faux pas or calculated policy? Was it meant for the domestic choir or for larger international audiences?
The United Arab Emirates immediately issued a statement calling attention to this brazen challenge to its sovereignty over the three islands. Then in measured tones, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was quoted as saying that the visit represented “a setback to all efforts and attempts the UAE is making to find a peaceful settlement to Iran’s occupation of the three UAE islands.”
The symbolism of President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa was unmistakable, as it was the first ever made by an Iranian president. The message seemed quite clear: Istanbul talks will not change Iran’s policies in the region. To make sure that symbolism was not lost, the official Fars News Agency marshaled a chorus of Iranian officials asserting that “ownership of the three islands is unquestionable” and that the visit was an “internal affair.”
The head of Iran’s Majlis’ (Parliament) Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy was equally strident; he was quoted by the Mehr News Agency as saying that “Iran’s possession of the three islands is unchangeable and permanent and this issue is not open to negotiation.”
From the island, the president went even further, saying that the whole Gulf was Persian. It goes without saying that such quixotic talk only plays in the hands of extremist nationalists who have no interest in cultural dialogue and no capacity for engagement and negotiations between the two shores of the Gulf.
Iran’s conduct on the eve of Istanbul’s nuclear talks only confirms a longstanding fear in the Gulf that even a nonnuclear Iran, under its current government, remains a destabilizing force in the region.
While the international community is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, it tends to underestimate Iran’s regional mischief making.
These developments are especially alarming when you examine the new language used by Iran to justify its claims to the three occupied islands, a language that may foretell claims to other parts of the Gulf as well. During his visit to Abu Musa Island on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad insisted that historical documents proved “the Persian Gulf is Persian,” according to the official IRNA news agency. He said that the term “Persian Gulf” derived from the “culture, civilization and the dominant opinion (sic) of the area. Since a few thousand years ago, the main culture in most of the world was the Iranian culture and civilization, and it is clear that the naming of this waterway would be based on the name of this culture and land.”
Regrettably, then, the Iranian President’s visit to Abu Musa may in fact represents a serious setback not just to efforts to find a peaceful solution to political and territorial issue, but also attempts at cultural dialogue.
While Iranian officials in the past used Islamic references to their political ambitions, President Ahmadinejad has abandoned that language and replaced it with a new terminology with Chauvinistic overtones.
It may be wishful thinking to dismiss Iran’s moves last week as political hype intended for domestic consumption or diplomatic bluster intended to improve Iran’s negotiating position in Istanbul. More likely, it appears, Iran is trying to project its claims as the dominant hegemon in the region. Regardless of what we may think of such claims, we should not underestimate the effects of such jingoistic language, and brazen conduct, on the future of Arab-Iranian relations in the Gulf.