Iran Rekindles Dispute over Persian Gulf Island

4 MINS READApr 20, 2012 | 12:26 GMT
Foreign ministers from Gulf Cooperation Council states meet April 17 in Doha to discuss a dispute over three Persian Gulf islands with Iran

The U.S. State Department on April 18 backed the United Arab Emirates' call for Iran to accept an arbitrated settlement over the disputed island of Abu Musa. Washington's entry into the ongoing spat between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran is the latest in a series of rhetorical volleys since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's surprise April 11 visit to the island, which Iran and the United Arab Emirates both claim as its own. The United Arab Emirates had recalled its ambassador to Iran and canceled a friendly soccer match between the countries, and Arab countries such as Morocco and Qatar have expressed their indignation over Ahmadinejad's visit, prompting a meeting of GCC foreign ministers April 17 to discuss the issue.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Abu Musa has reignited an ongoing dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, and by extension the GCC, resulting in fierce regional criticism of the move at a time when Iran is under increasing international scrutiny. The vitriolic response from the GCC states plays into Iran's regional strategy by both distracting regional attention from issues such as ongoing nuclear talks and demonstrating the GCC's inability to counter Iranian aggression without foreign backing.

With an area of only about 13 square kilometers (about 5 square miles) and a permanent population of less than 2,000, Abu Musa nonetheless is strategically important for Iran because of its location in the Persian Gulf at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. Control of the island provides Iran a foothold in the middle of the Persian Gulf between the United Arab Emirates and Iran and serves as a forward post for Iran to expand its geopolitical footprint in the Arabian Peninsula. There are indications that there may be oil deposits on or near the island, but the continued dispute over ownership has curbed foreign energy firms' desire to explore these potential resources.

The debate over Abu Musa's sovereignty began after the dissolution of the British truces with individual Arab emirates in 1971. As they organized the confederation that would eventually become the United Arab Emirates, then-Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sent troops to take over Abu Musa despite a previous agreement for joint control with the United Arab Emirates.

However, this control faltered when the shah became occupied with the domestic unrest that ultimately toppled the monarchy in 1979, resulting in the current clerical regime in Iran. The period of unrest, followed by the establishment of a new governing body and the costly eight-year Iran-Iraq war, prevented Iran from focusing on Abu Musa. It was not until after the 1991 Persian Gulf War significantly weakened the Iraqi regime that Iran had the resources to engage the GCC in Abu Musa.

In 1992, the Iranian military pushed out UAE security forces based on the island after a series of moves aimed at expulsing third-party nationals from the United Arab Emirates — mostly South Asians and Egyptians — who were working on the island without additional Iranian visas. The move drew heavy criticism and protests from the United Arab Emirates, and Iranian forces, under the pretense of defending Iranian interests and border security, locked down the island. Tehran has also gradually increased its troop presence on the island from about 700 in the late 1990s to about 4,000 now. It also established a maritime and ship registration office there in 2008; the official Iranian government operation on the island again drew international criticism.

Abu Musa provides a proxy battle that Iran has already effectively won. The unique relationship between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which has an Iranian expatriate population of more than 350,000 and is Iran's largest trading partner, affords Iran the leeway to push back against the GCC on the Arabian Peninsula next door to Saudi Arabia.

Despite the strong Arab response to Ahmadinejad's recent visit to the island, the issue is of little concern outside the region. Unlike Syria, Iraq or Bahrain, Abu Musa is of little concern to the GCC's foreign backers, namely the United States. Iran's hold over Abu Musa is not a regional game changer. In the event of open conflict in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran's presence on the island has never been a significant deterrence or threat to the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

Repercussions of Ahmadinejad's Visit

The timing of Ahmadinejad's trip, two days before Iran's meeting with the P-5+1 group April 13 in Istanbul, sent a clear message to GCC members: Tehran has no intention of backing down in its attempts to secure influence in the region. The strongest reactions came after the seemingly amicable discourse between Iran and the Western nations pushing for restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, expressed its anxieties regarding the possibility of a strategic agreement between the United States and Iran on the issue of regional influence by lambasting Ahmadinejad's visit. The threat of Iranian encroachment into the Arab world, symbolized by Ahmadinejad's visit to Abu Musa, is more than a mere specter of the GCC's worst fears. To the littoral states of the Persian Gulf, it is an expression of Iranian dominance and occupation of their lands.

The GCC's attempts to bring international attention to their consternation have only served to distract regional and global attention away from the larger issues at hand. The United States, the GCC's key foreign backer, is already engaging with Tehran on the nuclear issue and others on its own terms, and any accommodation between the two ignites Saudi Arabia's fear of losing Washington's support, no matter how remote that possibility is.

The GCC has two options to effectively respond to Iran's actions: convince its foreign stakeholders that the issue matters or take Iran on itself. It will fail at both. Beyond rhetorical support, the United States will not want to enter any conflict over an issue of as little import as Abu Musa. For now, Iran will continue to use the islands for its own needs to mold regional perception of its competition with the Gulf monarchies.

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