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Gulf Leaders Discuss UAE-Iran Island Dispute

April 17, 2012

Philip Wellman | Dubai

Foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council are holding an emergency meeting in Doha Tuesday to discuss an ongoing territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which some believe could pose a threat to international security.

The talks follow a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Abu Musa, a Persian Gulf island occupied by Iran, but also claimed by the UAE.

Iranian state media said Ahmadinejad traveled to the disputed territory last week to deal with domestic issues.

Abu Musa is one of three islands claimed by both Iran and the UAE that lie near the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic channel through which roughly one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies are shipped.

Iran threatened to close the strait earlier this year in response to sanctions targeting its nuclear program. Analysts say, if it were to carry out the threat, it would likely use troops stationed on Abu Musa.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan called on Tehran to end its “occupation” of the islands, saying it is not likely the consequences could “be contained by either the UAE or Iran” if the discord carried on much longer.

However, Iranian officials said their rule of the land was “not negotiable”.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at the UAE University, expects Ahmadinejad’s stopover in Abu Musa to become a turning point in the confrontation.

“I think the UAE now is going to change course. It used to follow a more diplomatic, a more quiet, more peaceful approach," he said. "From now on, I think all options are open for the UAE.”

Iran has occupied the three islands since 1971, but recently agreed to bilateral negotiations with the UAE to resolve the dispute.

Sheikh Abdullah says the Iranian president’s recent actions undermined the agreement and deepened the mistrust between Iran and its neighbors.

Sunni Arab states in the Gulf have become increasingly weary of Shi’ite Iran and accuse the country of fomenting unrest in Bahrain to extend its influence in the region.

Tehran denies the accusations, but has been highly critical of Bahrain’s crackdown on Shi’ite protesters, and even built a replica of the Pearl Roundabout monument on Abu Musa. Destroyed by the government, the original monument has become a symbol of Bahrain’s opposition movement.

In light of the escalating tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors, David Roberts - deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in Qatar - suggests other regional issues will quickly overshadow the UAE’s territorial dispute with Iran.

“It’s in this argumentative accusatory context that we are talking about this and therefore, given that tensions are still quite high," said Roberts. "I don’t see how there is enough space for a reasoned, measured discussion to take place.”

Abdulla also doubts a resolution is on the horizon.

“I expect the days to come are going to be a very difficult time for the UAE-Iran relationship and the UAE-GCC relationship and 2012 is not going to be an easy year for either of us here,” he said.

The UAE has urged Tehran to take the island dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

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