DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – Emboldened by its close ties to the U.S., the United Arab Emirates is taking a more aggressive approach to challenging Iran over a territorial claim to three tiny Persian Gulf islands — even at the risk of antagonizing its powerful neighbor.
The tough talk is part of the oil-rich country’s push to be taken more seriously as a major global player.
For three decades, the Emirates contested the islands located in the strategic Strait of Hormuz in a relatively low key manner. But this summer, it switched tactics — turning to tougher diplomacy to drum up support for what it calls the liberation of Arab territory from Iran’s illegal occupation.
In particular, it protested the recent opening of two offices by Iran on the largest of the islands, Abu Musa.
“The continuation, since 1971, of Iran’s occupation of the three UAE islands … is an issue of central importance for us,” Emirates foreign minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed told the United Nations General Assembly in his September address. The comments were the most high-level public remarks by a UAE official on the issue to date.
Abdullah’s recent visit to Tehran to improve “bilateral relations” shows the UAE’s willingness to talk out problems with mightier Iran. But behind the scenes, the Emirates has pressured groups like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to do more to help it win control of the strategically valuable territory.
It also complained to Western diplomats over Tehran’s refusal to settle the dispute with an international arbitrator.
Such activism has won the UAE some Western support.
“The international community should help the UAE to make it possible that Iran understands that they are wrong and that they should sit around the table to discuss the issue,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was quoted as saying in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National last week.
The confrontational posture is rare among the conservative Gulf Arab sheikdoms, who normally are cautious about criticizing their massive neighbor.
“They look at Iran as an expansionist, bullying neighbor, but they don’t like to say it clearly,” said Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Analysts say some of the Emirates’ newfound confidence in challenging the majority Shiite Iran is a result of the bond this majority Sunni Muslim nation has with the United States.
“With the support of Gulf nations and perhaps considerable backing of the U.S., the UAE is saying to Tehran ‘Back off, behave yourself,'” Henderson said.
The islands’ location in the Strait of Hormuz is what makes them appealing. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and U.S. Navy warships patrol the narrow waterway, where 40 percent of the world’s oil passes through.
“The islands are strategically perfectly positioned for observations and interdictions of the Strait of Hormuz,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior researcher at Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
They give Iran “further land support to station boats, missiles, radars and troops in the Strait of Hormuz,” Karasik said.
Iran maintains that an agreement signed eight years before its 1979 Islamic revolution between the shah and the ruler of one of the UAE’s seven emirates, Sharjah, gives Tehran the right to administer Abu Musa and station troops there.
“Any misunderstanding about administrative arrangements on Abu Musa is solvable based on bilateral talks and the 1971 agreement,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hassan Qashqavi, said in August.
But the agreement is vague. It says neither the UAE or Iran “will give up its claim to Abu Musa nor recognize the other’s claim.”
And there is no agreement on the two smaller islands — Greater and Lesser Tunbs. UAE insists they belonged to the emirate Ras al-Khaimah until Iran captured them by force days before the city-states united and declared independence from Britain in 1971.
But Tehran is unlikely to relinquish control of the islands any time soon because they “have historically been part of Iran,” said Iraj Jamshidi, an independent analyst in Tehran.
Iran also has threatened to close off the Hormuz if it is ever attacked.
“At times when Tehran is fearing a maritime attack by the United States from the Gulf waters, Iranian positioning on the islands appears of strategic interest to defend the country and possibly disrupt traffic in the Strait of Hormuz,” said Jamal al-Suwaidi, director of Emirates Center For Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi.
The U.S. Navy insists Iran will not be allowed to execute its threat, but the timing of its decision to build offices on the island is seen by its Arab neighbors as a provocation.
“Iran is pushing the limits to see if it can get away with it and the UAE is hoping it cannot,” Henderson said.