Longstanding tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors are intensifying because of rival territorial claims over three strategic islands in the Persian Gulf--Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. Three high-profile visits since mid-April—by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Revolutionary Commander Mohammad Jafari, and a parliamentary delegation—provoked anger and anxiety among the six neighboring sheikhdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The Iranian president visited Abu Musa on April 11. The Iranian press reported that a parliamentary delegation visited all three islands on April 29 to commemorate “National Persian Gulf Day.” And the Revolutionary Guard commander reportedly visited all three on May 2. He was accompanied by the IRGC Navy commander Rear-Admiral Ali Fadavi and other senior military officials, according to Iranian media.
Abu Musa—only about 4.5 square miles, with a population of 2,000 -- is the only inhabited island. But it is about 10 miles from the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is a chokepoint for 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil. Iran maintains a military base for a few hundred troops and dated Silkworm HY-2 missiles, which have a range of about 125 miles. The Revolutionary Guard commander addressed troops during his visit.
The location gives the Islamic Republic a sensitive strategic position that is more an irritant than a tactical advantage. But in the eyes of the oil-rich Gulf states, Iran’s hold on the islands symbolizes Tehran’s expansionist agenda. For centuries, Iran controlled the islands, which were occupied by Britain in 1908. In 1971, during the shah’s rule, Britain negotiated a power-sharing agreement between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over Abu Musa. But in 1992 Iran then took control of all three based on historic ownership before Britain. Most of Abu Musa’s infrastructure was also reportedly built by Iran.
After the latest tensions, the Gulf Cooperation Council condemned Ahmadinejad’s visit, only the second by a president since the 1979 revolution. At a GCC meeting in Riyadh on May 2, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz condemned Iran for “unacceptable” behavior and for violating UAE’s “legitimate claim” to the three “occupied islands.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa prompted the United Arab Emirates, which does a huge volume of business with Iran through Dubai, to recall its ambassador from Tehran. The United States, Italy and France issued statements supporting regional stability and the UAE’s attempts to peacefully resolve the dispute.
The Iranian moves and Gulf reaction come as the six-member council is considering ways to merge resources and powers—in reaction to both internal instability in Bahrain and fear of Iran’s regional intentions.
In response, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told Press TV that the Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa was “an internal affair which has been made in the framework of his provincial tours.” But in a reflection of the strong nationalist sentiment underlying the issue, some Iranian legislators recently moved to have the street in front of the UAE Embassy in Tehran renamed “Abu Musa” Street.
Ted Wynne is a researcher at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.