Inside Story
Is trouble brewing between the UAE and Iran?
As Gulf states unite to take on Iran over disputed Gulf islands, we ask what this means for an already volatile region.
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2012 09:28

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held an emergency meeting on Tuesday in Doha where its members discussed the latest dispute between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran.

"The hardliners in the Iranian government took this issue and they want to escalate the situation and manufacture a major crisis in the Gulf region to divert attention from the crisis in Syria or the crisis over the Iranian nuclear file or the crisis over the struggle within the Iranian leadership."

- Mustafa al-Ani, the director of the security and defence unit at the Gulf Research Centre

The two countries disagree over who has jurisdiction over three small but strategically important islands near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz.

In 1971, Tehran seized control of Abu Musa, an island in the eastern Gulf, as well as the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, located 60km off the UAE's coast.

The GCC's meeting followed the recent visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, to Abu Musa - something the UAE called a provocation.

Now for the first time in more than 40 years, Abu Dhabi is demanding international arbitration over the status of the three disputed islands and the GCC agrees.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, responded with a statement in which he said: "Our rule over the islands is not negotiable, and Iran’s sovereignty over the islands is certain and on the record .... We hope that the other sides act with patience, perseverance, insight and prudence regarding the misunderstandings that could arise, or else issues will become very complicated."

"Ahmadinejad was not trying to demonstrate a point viz a viz the Gulf state leaders. He was just visiting Abu Musa .... It seems the accession of Abu Musa Island to Iran officially in 1971 by [the] British is seen as an ... illegal seizure by the Gulf leaders."

- Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University

Ahmadinejad gave a fiery speech in Tehran on Tuesday, in which he said potential aggressors would regret any attack on the country.

The dispute over Abu Musa and the other islands is just the latest example of the growing tensions between GCC countries and Iran.

Members of the GCC played an important role in firming up international support for US-led sanctions against Iran. They did that by reassuring countries like China that they would increase oil production. In January, the UAE announced it was building an oil pipeline that would bypass the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to block.

The GCC has also argued with Iran over Syria. As Syria's most important ally, Iran has denounced Qatar and Saudi Arabia for interfering in Syria's internal affairs.

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, is also deemed to be too close to Iran, which is a concern for the Gulf states. In March, the first Arab League summit held in Baghdad in two decades was attended by mostly low-level officials from the Gulf.

And finally, last month Saudi Arabia hosted the first GCC-US strategic forum, at which Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, voiced her commitment to defend GCC states against external threats, particularly Iran.

So, will the dispute between GCC countries and Iran over the islands escalate? Just why do the islands matter and what does the exchange of angry words mean for the already volatile region?

Inside Story discusses with guests: Mustafa al-Ani, the director of the security and defence unit at the Gulf Research Centre; Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University; and Fahad al-Shalemi, a former colonel in the Kuwaiti army and president of the Gulf Peace and Security forum.

"Everyone knows and should know that the dear nation of Iran is the most peace-loving nation in the world. But everyone should also know that if there is any aggression against the Iranian nation, or our proud military, or if the land, interests and dignity of Iran are looked at in a hostile manner, the enemies will be confronted with a deep and embarrassing sense of regret."

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president



  • Iranian leader's visit to Abu Musa reignited longstanding dispute
  • The UAE wants arbitration to decide control of the islands, but Iran refuses
  • GCC leaders met in Doha to discuss the dispute over the strategic Gulf
  • GCC called on Iran to end its "occupation" of Abu Musa
  • The UAE withdrew its ambassador to Tehran after Ahmadinejad's visit
  • Tehran says the islands are an inseparable part of Iran  
  • The UAE and Iran had previously agreed to deal with the situation amicably
  • Iran took control of the three islands near the Strait of Hormuz in 1971
  • Iran has built an airport and a desalination plant on the islands
  • Iran has barred UAE nationals from visiting the three Gulf islands
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