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Disputed Islands and Occupation

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: UAE Iran economy
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International commentators have become increasingly intrigued by the sharp exchanges of words between the UAE and Iran over the long-running issue of the national ownership of three small Gulf islands: Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa.
On 20 April, the UAEs Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, used an appearance in the Federal National Council (FNC) of the UAE to denounce Irans continuing occupation of the three islands that the country has long claimed as Emirati territory.  This followed a further denouncement of Irans unyielding position by the Arab League during its latest summit meeting; by now an almost ritual event that surprised few commentators.
However, the tone of Sheikh Abdullahs remarks raised some eyebrows because he compared Irans occupation to Israels occupation of surrounding territories: There is no difference between Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, the West Bank or Gaza, as occupation remains occupation... No Arab land is more precious than another.  Few were surprised that the Tehran leadership responded immediately and in kind with foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast stating: "Comments made about the Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf are neither right nor well-considered."
In train with this fairly standard Iranian statement came, a few days later, Ramin Mehmanparast threatened action against the UAE if Sheikh Abdullahs line of criticism continued.  Speaking of consequences and warning that it would be difficult to control public reaction to similar comments in the future, the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman sounded exasperated and angry at the UAEs comparing Tehran with Zionists.
Against the backdrop of Irans annual naval exercise, which as ever highlighted its capability to create havoc in the Gulf and to close the Hormuz Strait, Sheikh Abdullah used a visit to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank to proclaim: We hope the Iranian side will look at this dispute and the occupation not only as an obstacle to improving relations between our two countries but also as an obstacle to Iran's relations with Arab states. For the sake of everybody, we hope this issue will be resolved peacefully and as soon as possible.
So why has the UAEs leadership taken such a robust stance toward Iran at this moment?
Some have concluded that the UAE leadership is trying to demonstrate a clear divide between the UAE and Iran ahead of not just further UN sanctions but also the more imminent likelihood of stronger US unilateral measures.  With the international mood toughening toward Iran, the UAE may be signaling that it too has now set its face firmly against Iranian pressure.  Given the widespread perception that the UAE, particularly through Dubai, remains Irans primary conduit for trading with the world, Sheikh Abdullahs words may intend both to underline the UAEs separation from Iran and to dampen international attention to the trade linkages. 
The UAE probably does not wish to goad Iran into action that would merit a wider international response in the Gulf.  Yet the UAE seems finally to have lost patience and is testing the international resolve to support the UAE in settling this islands dispute.  The Arab Leagues frequent, and almost ritual, condemnations of Irans claim to the islands, have never achieved positive result.  This time the UAE may seek a different outcome by trying to make common cause among Arab states on meeting the threat from Iran.

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