UAE recalls its Iran envoy over island row

The FNC, GCC, the Arab League and Arab parliamentarians condemn Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the island of Abu Musa.

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The UAE recalled its ambassador to Tehran yesterday in a growing diplomatic row over Wednesday's visit by the Iranian president to the disputed island of Abu Musa.

Saif Mohammed Obaid Al Zaabi had been pulled back "for consultations" following the controversial visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the state news agency, Wam, reported.

Along with Greater and Lesser Tunb, Abu Musa is one of three islands in the Gulf claimed by the UAE but invaded by Iran on the eve of the UAE's foundation in 1971.

The UAE has repeatedly pressed its claim, directly with Iran and through international bodies.

The visit drew immediate condemnation from the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, who called it a "flagrant violation" of the UAE's sovereignty over its territories and a "setback" to the country's efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the issue.

He said that the visit and the Iranian president's "provocative rhetoric" exposed the duplicity of Iran's assertion that it was keen to establish good relations in the region and friendship with the UAE.

The Arab League described the visit as an unjustifiable step that undermines and violates efforts to peacefully resolve the issue of Iran occupation of the UAE’s three islands.

And the Federal National Council also joined in the row, denouncing the visit in similar terms to Sheikh Abdullah.

The FNC called it "a setback to all efforts made by the UAE to put an end to the occupation ... through direct negotiations or resorting to the International Court of Justice," Wam reported.

It, too, criticised Mr Ahmadinejad's "provocative rhetoric" and called on Iran "to cease such provocative steps and adopt peaceful approaches that could build confidence and help reach just settlement" concerning the islands.

Ali Jassim (UAQ) said Iran's statements have been to date contradictory to their actions.

He said the UAE and the Iranian parliament have sat down together in recent years to come up with a solution of forming a temporary committee to look over the islands dispute to reach a solution through negotiations.

Although the idea seemed to have been well received, it was not pursued.

"The visit of the Iranian president Ahmadinejad to Abu Musa, during this time specifically, is an act of provocation," he said. "The Iranian side has met positive and peaceful solutions with hostility, which reflects the language of their regime which does not believe in dialogue."

The Tehran-based Iranian news website Tabnak yesterday criticised the UAE for making comments that "started a new physiological war against Iran and the territorial integrity of our country".

Tabnak accused foreign media of portraying the trip by Ahmadinejad as unusual, "while a visit by the president of a country to various parts of his country is quite a natural and usual act and these media are effectively trying to present the three islands as separated from the Iranian soil", it said.

The trip was the first by an Iranian head of state to the strategically located islands in more than 40 years.

Tabnak added that "it is necessary that our diplomatic institution convey its objection to the UAE government and remind them of Iran's borderlines at least by summoning the country's ambassador ".

The UAE drew support from the GCC, which has long backed its claim of sovereignty. Dr Abdul Latif Al Zayani, the GCC's secretary general strongly condemned the visit, adding that it would not change the historic and legal facts and UAE sovereignty over the islands.

"The visit demonstrates an irresponsible provocation and a step that doesn't cope with the good neighbourliness policy adopted by GCC member states towards Iran, nor with the GCC's persistent peaceful efforts for solving the issues," he said.

The Bahraini prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman, also expressed the kingdom's support for the UAE, stressing firm support for any measures taken by the UAE to ensure its sovereignty.

GCC condemnation would not "make a dent" in Iran's behaviour, said Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science. "The real step is to go to the security council."

Dr Abdulla called the "totally unexpected" visit instigation "of the worst kind", and said the UAE should make its case to the Security Council and the International Court of Justice to settle the dispute once and for all.

Ahmed Al Attar, a security affairs commentator, argued that the visit could be interpreted as a "patriotic rallying call ... to beat the drum of nationalism at a time when Iranian revenues are falling".

Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, agreed that the UAE would likely bring the issue of the islands to the UN Security Council.

He also said that the move comes just before Permanent Security Council member states and Germany will meet with Iran in Istanbul to discuss Iran's nuclear activities, the first talks after a 15-month break.

"Iran looks for any way that it can make a statement without it drawing too much ire from outside powers but clearly this is something that makes the UAE very angry," said Dr Karasik.

During his visit, Mr Ahmadinejad claimed that all historical documents testified that the Gulf should rightfully be called the Persian Gulf.

"Since thousands of years ago, Iranian culture and civilisation has been dominant in a vast part of the world and it was natural to name places after this culture and civilisation," the Iranian state news agency Irna quoted him as saying. It said he made the remarks before a large crowd of people on Abu Musa.

He went on to criticise "certain powers" that have military bases in the Gulf region, saying regional countries had to pay for establishing such bases.

The tensions have even spilled over to the world of sport, with the cancellation of an UAE-Iran friendly football match that was due to be played at the Fujairah Stadium on Tuesday.

In a release on its website, the UAE Football Association said the move was "in line with the official stand of the state". The match had been revealed by the FA only the day before.

* With additional reporting by Ola Salem