In the latest Iran-UAE diplomatic row, does the U.S. walk on shaky ground?

A visit earlier this week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the island of Abu Musa has triggered a diplomatic row between the Islamic Republic and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abu Musa, the Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb are three islands in the Persian Gulf currently under Iranian control which are also claimed by the UAE.

The UAE has responded to Ahmadinejad’s visit to the island by recalling its ambassador to Iran and calling a special session of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 18 Wednesday 2012. GCC Chief Abdullatif al-Zayani also condemned the Iranian president’s trip, declaring it a “…clear violation of UAE sovereignty” and “an irresponsible provocation…not in line with the GCC policy of maintaining good neighbourly relations with Iran…”

The United States also decided to enter the fray yesterday, with Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner of the State Department declaring:

“The United States reiterates its support for a peaceful resolution between the United Arab Emirates and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb islands. The United States appreciates the UAE’s efforts in this regard and urges Iran to respond positively to the UAE’s initiative to resolve the issue through direct negotiations, the International Court of Justice, or another appropriate international forum. Actions such as the April 11 visit by Iranian President Ahmadinejad to the Abu Musa Island only complicate efforts to settle the issue.”

According to Mehr News Agency, the response from the Islamic Republic’s senior leadership has been uniformly outraged. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast called the UAE’s reaction “interference with Iran’s internal affairs”, arguing that:

“The era of declaring unconstructive positions in the statements of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, and in particular [on] the three Iranian islands, has come to an end… The attachment of these islands to the soil of Iran is an enduring and non-negotiable affair.”

The Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis, Iran’s legislature, expressed its outrage in the form of a declaration signed by 225 Majlis representatives calling the GCC’s statements “baseless and wrong”. Although they emphasized the territorial integrity of Iran as “non-negotiable”, they also tentatively reached out to the UAE, calling for “strengthening ties between the two countries and clearing up possible misunderstandings” by supporting “direct and bilateral negotiations”. However, they concluded on a stern note, asserting that:

“…these baseless claims from the United Arab Emirates’ government in regard to the three islands, shall never disturb Iran’s national right to these islands as part of our national soil.”

In a move that appears to be intended to bolster Iran’s claims to the islands, Hormuzgan province (the administrative unit the three islands are part of) Governor Ebrahim Azizi announced that the Second International Persian Gulf Cultural-Artistic Summit will take place on Abu Musa island.

Editer’s Note: This latest diplomatic spat comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region over Iran’s controversial nuclear program and concerns that Iran may defensively or offensively deploy its  naval forces in the Persian Gulf, including on the three islands, to close the Strait of Hormuz and curtail oil shipping.

At least two successive regimes in Iran, the Pahlavi Kingdom and Islamic Republic, have asserted control over the disputed islands, whose status was formalized in 1971 between Iran, the Emirate of Sharjah, and Great Britain. Part of Iran’s concern over the question of taking the dispute before international arbitration is that third parties, namely Britain, may become involved and weaken Iran’s position.

One interesting aspect of the current row is the interjection of the U.S., which may be perceived by some segments of Iranian society as favouring the UAE. As we’ve reported in the past the U.S. has made strong efforts to build-up a positive image in Iranian society by employing soft power. Involvement in the territorial dispute between Iran and the UAE runs counter to this strategy and risks stoking Iranian nationalism and a renewal of anti-American sentiment within the country. Leading International Relations scholar Stephen Walt, among others, has attested to the continuing power of nationalism:

“Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.”

While the U.S. is well served by supporting a key ally in the region, the UAE (and the GCC by extension), it should also consider the price it could pay by provoking Iranian sensitivities in this area.