Turkish diplomatic sources told Sunday’s Zaman that the recent flare-up between Iran and the UAE over three Gulf islands should be solved through negotiation. “Turkey’s only desire is to maintain stability and security in the Gulf,” said a senior diplomat speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.
The long-running conflict over the three disputed islands came on the agenda once again when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Abu Mousa, an island in the Gulf, amid the Syrian and Iraqi issues. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar last month to discuss the current situation in Syria and Iraq. While Turkey is trying to calm the tensions in the region, the Iranian action was considered a provocation to further tension.
Turkish officials have repeatedly stated that Turkey has never had the intention of intervening in the internal affairs of Iraq, Syria or any other neighbor; maintaining good neighborly and friendly relations with all of its neighbors has been Turkey’s main objective. “Turkey is making efforts to ensure development, prosperity and order in the entire region,” said the officials.
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Mousa, the largest of the three Gulf islands, controlled by Iran but also claimed by the UAE, made him the first Iranian head of state to go to the disputed islands.
Abu Mousa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs have been under the control of Iran since 1971, shortly before the seven Gulf emirates gained full independence from Britain and formed the UAE.
Ali Hussein Bakeer, an expert at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), told Sunday’s Zaman that Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Mousa was a very provocative and unwise step. “Unfortunately, the world is used to such irresponsible actions from the Iranian regime, which is accustomed to taking unwise steps that undermine security and stability in the region. This visit to the disputed island complicates things in the region and fuels the conflict at a time when Iran needs the support of its neighboring countries against any possible aggression from the US or Israel,” said Bakeer.
Gulf Arab states condemned Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Gulf island as a “provocation” and pledged their full support to the UAE, saying any perceived aggression against the UAE would be considered an affront to the entire six-nation bloc, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Iran’s main regional rival Saudi Arabia.
US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said on April 17 that Ahmadinejad’s visit had only complicated efforts to settle the issue and urged a peaceful resolution of the dispute through international mediation.
Bakeer stated, “There is serious mistrust of Iran in the GCC and other Arab countries, and they are skeptical about Iran’s expansionist regional ambitions and policies. Such a step by Iran has only confirmed their suspicions.”
“The GCC along with many Arab countries condemned this step, and the Peninsula Shield Force [the GCC’s joint military forces] decided to conduct a joint exercise code-named ‘Islands of Loyalty’ to test its readiness against any Iranian threat, such as Iran deploying defensive and offensive military units on Abu Mousa,” said Bakeer.
After the Gulf states’ denouncement of Ahmadinejad’s visit as a “flagrant violation” of the UAE’s sovereignty and their warning that they would stand united on the case, Iran’s ground forces commander warned that if these disputes were not solved through diplomacy, the Iranian military was ready to show its power to any offender, adding that Iran would strongly defend its rights.
The commander added that Iranian forces were capable of confronting any offender against Iran’s sovereignty over the strategic Abu Mousa, which dominates the approach to the Strait of Hormuz, a key waterway in the Gulf through which approximately one-fifth of the world’s oil supply passes and which Iran has threatened to choke off in retaliation to tougher Western sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
When asked what could be the aim behind Iran’s surprise visit to Abu Mousa, Bakeer replied that Iran wanted to send messages on several fronts.
“It is no secret that Iran suffers deeply from the poor policies of Ahmadinejad, especially on the economic front,” said Bakeer. Regarding Iran’s move on the regional front, Bakeer underlined that the country wants to strengthen its position in the region. “Iran is sending a message to the GCC that the Iranian government has the ability to take aggressive steps regardless of how other states perceive them,” said Bakeer.
Bakeer also stated that these kinds of unconstructive and sectarian policies were not helping to maintain peace and stability in the region. “The Iranian regime has been striving for decades to be recognized as a legitimate regional power but will not receive recognition through these policies, I believe they are sending the wrong messages,” said Bakeer.
Veysel Ayhan, an expert from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Research (ORSAM), told Sunday’s Zaman that with its visit to Abu Mousa, Iran wanted to send a direct message to the Gulf countries, which have adopted an aggressive policy towards the Syrian regime.
“Iran wanted to show its power to the Gulf states and its ability to destabilize the Gulf,” said Ayhan.
Ayhan stated that Iran was making a political move with the visit. “There are radical groups in Iran and by his visit to Abu Mousa, Ahmadinejad wanted to meet the demands of these groups. Furthermore, the basic phenomenon behind this political step was to give a clear response to the Gulf countries, which have taken a stance opposed to Iran’s on regional issues including Iraq and Syria,” said Ayhan.
Ayhan said that in particular, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have heard Iran’s message very clearly and have fostered tighter cooperation with each other as well as with Turkey and the United States.
“The region is going through a process of radicalization,” said Ayhan, adding that the Gulf countries were trying to gain the support of the West against Iran’s harsh policies in the region.
Following Ahmedinejad’s visit, the UAE has recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations and also cancelled a friendly soccer match with Iran’s national team, in response to what its officials called a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.
“Iran, by visiting Abu Mousa, brought the issue of the disputed islands into the international arena,” said Ayhan, adding that Iran wanted to show its dominance over these islands.
Iran says its sovereignty over the three islands is not negotiable but has requested talks with the UAE to clear up “misunderstandings” over the issue.
Furthermore, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned the Gulf states not to “complicate” matters and said that Iran was hoping for the other players to act with wisdom and patience towards the occasional misunderstanding.
Bayram Sinkaya, an expert on Iranian politics and a lecturer in the department of international relations at Yıldırım Beyazıt University in Ankara, stated that Iran’s move should be evaluated in terms of Iran’s domestic policies rather than regional policies. “Ahmadinejad is seriously marginalized in Iran’s domestic politics. He has almost lost his influence in foreign politics. He wants to create a maneuvering area for himself on the foreign scene,” said Sinkaya.
Regarding regional policies, Sinkaya underlined that the Gulf countries were trying to contain Iran’s regional influence by supporting the Syrian uprising. “Iran’s visit to the island was a strategic move to strengthen the status quo in the region,” said Sinkaya.
The topics of tensions between Iran and Gulf Arab countries, as well as their Western allies, includes Iranian meddling in Bahrain’s uprising, Iranian threats to block Gulf oil shipping lanes and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran has repeatedly denied having such a program.