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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Ahmadinejad in Abu Musa: Iran’s Lengthening Shadow in the Gulf

Filed under: Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

 Vol. 12, No. 12     22 May 2012 

  • The April 11, 2012, visit by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the island of Abu Musa, which is close to where the Strait of Hormuz opens into the Persian Gulf, has severely exacerbated the dispute between Iran and the UAE over possession of the island and two others.
  • This dispute joins a long series of Iranian-Saudi rivalries elsewhere. In Bahrain, Iran is investing great efforts (in propaganda and subversion) to help the Shiite majority in its struggle with the royal house; in Yemen, Iran has recently stepped up its activity; and in Syria, Iran is working to preserve Bashar Assad’s rule while Saudi Arabia backs his opponents. At the same time, Iran claims that both the UAE and especially Bahrain belong to it historically, leading to intensified tensions in the wake of the Saudi plan to confederate with Bahrain and other Sunni Gulf states.
  • Amid the intensifying conflict with the West, Iran is maintaining a policy of projecting force in the Gulf and surrounding areas, building new military bases along the Gulf’s shores, performing naval maneuvers, and practicing ship takeovers and special-forces activities.
  • With these moves Iran is trying to signal that it is prepared for a conflict with the United States in the naval domain, seeking to convey both to the United States and its Gulf neighbors that it is the ascendant power in the region, and that the region’s security is in its hands and not those of external powers. Yet this activity has had a unifying effect on the GCC member states which fear Iran’s lengthening shadow.
  • Given the Arabs’ weakness and lack of a charismatic figure who could lead a Sunni Arab response to the mounting Iranian challenge, the need for American power in the region – to create the necessary balance against Iran and protect energy sources – has only grown.

Three Disputed Islands Near the Strait of Hormuz

The April 11, 2012, visit by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the island of Abu Musa, which is close to where the Strait of Hormuz opens into the Persian Gulf, has again severely exacerbated the dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over possession of Abu Musa and the two nearby islands of Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. The UAE’s foreign minister condemned Ahmadinejad’s visit to the island, which Iran conquered in 1971, as a gross affront to the UAE’s sovereignty, asserting: “This visit will not change the legal status of these islands which are part and parcel of UAE national soil.”1

The Iranian-UAE quarrel over this issue is of long standing. It is now, however, erupting at an especially sensitive time. The sanctions on Iran are intensifying; the United States has declared its intention to deploy a defensive anti-missile shield in the Gulf states as well as F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft in the UAE, stoking tensions in the Gulf; and Iran – in the wake of the sanctions on its oil sector, which Tehran regards as a “declaration of economic war” – has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the oil for the global energy market passes. The islands’ strategic location adds further to the military tensions between the United States and Iran, which often emphasizes its naval-warfare capabilities – particularly of the asymmetrical kind – and preparedness for possibly initiating a naval clash with the United States.

Another issue accompanying this crisis concerns the name of the Gulf. Whereas the Gulf states call it the Arab Gulf, Iran calls it the Persian Gulf. Google Maps decided that, to remain neutral, its maps would no longer refer to the region. This discomfited Iran, which protested the deletion of the Gulf from the maps.

Ahmadinejad’s brazen stop in Abu Musa was part of a visit to Iran’s Hormozgan province on the Gulf coast. In Abu Musa he asserted that, even though geographers were agreed in using the name Persian Gulf, certain “uncivilized” Arab and Western states chose to call it the Arab Gulf.2 The Majlis, Iran’s parliament, aims to pass a law creating a new Iranian province that is to be called the Persian Gulf and to include, among other things, the three disputed islands.3

Ever since Ahmadinejad visited Abu Musa, the issue has remained on Iran’s agenda and is referred to almost daily by senior political and military figures as well as commentators in Iran’s print and electronic media, who fully support the government’s stance. Moreover, Iran has held several well-publicized events on the island to demonstrate its sovereignty and intention to retain it, develop it, and make it an inseparable part of Iran as well as a tourist center. For example, Farhad Daneshjoo, president of Iran’s Open University and brother of the science minister, announced the establishment of a branch of the university on Abu Musa.4

Iran versus Saudi Arabia

The Iranian-UAE dispute over Abu Musa negatively affects Iran’s relations with the rest of the Gulf states and with the Arab system as a whole, particularly with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, too, have taken the UAE’s side in an emergency meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers. This dispute can be added to a long series of Iranian-Saudi rivalries elsewhere in the Middle East against the backdrop of the “Arab Spring. In Bahrain, Iran is investing great efforts (in propaganda and subversion) to help the Shiite majority in its struggle with the royal house, which is receiving assistance from the Saudis (including military intervention by the Peninsula Shield Force and a plan initiated recently to confederate with Bahrain, which yet again revived Iranian claims that Bahrain is an Iranian province); in Yemen, Iran has recently stepped up its activity; and in Syria, Iran is working to preserve Bashar Assad’s rule while Saudi Arabia backs his opponents.

Iranian Warnings

In response to a statement issued by the GCC foreign ministers’ emergency meeting in Doha, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed regret over the reiteration of the council’s “baseless claims” concerning “the three Iranian islands.” The spokesman condemned the statement and stressed that Iran’s possession of the islands is something that “cannot be changed and is not at all open to negotiation.”5 He characterized the disputes between the states of the region as a “Zionist plot,” of which the region’s rulers should be well apprised, and declared that the “Islamic awakening” (Iran’s term for the Arab Spring) had put U.S. and Israeli interests in jeopardy.6

Mohammed Karim Abdi, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, “recommended” to the Arab League’s member states (given their support for the UAE’s stance regarding Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa) “to deal with their tense situation” and with “the slaughter of the Arabs in Bahrain” instead of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs. “The Arab League and the UAE are now knuckling under to the British-American-Zionist triangle and acting to strengthen the Zionist regime.”7 Another member of the committee, Zohre Elahiyan, called on Iran’s Foreign Ministry to take a firmer stance toward the UAE’s claims and toward what she called its senior officials’ inappropriate behavior.

Yehiya Rahim Safavi, military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), warned the region’s states not to become a tool in the hands of foreign states regarding “the three Iranian islands,” and affirmed that the “Persian Gulf” is the only correct, original, and historical name for this body of water as documented in all the books and historical maps. He further asserted that states should not try to create tensions in the region with baseless claims, and warned: “Know, then, that if a crisis erupts in the Persian Gulf region, this crisis also will hurt you.”8 A senior official in the Iranian Armed Forces also warned that “if a crisis breaks out, the UAE is the one that will be most grievously harmed by it.”9

IRGC naval commander Ali Fadavi underscored Iran’s full and absolute sovereignty over Abu Musa and added regarding the president’s visit there: “The application of Iran’s sovereignty to the island of Abu Musa is no different than the application of our sovereignty to Tehran, and the president’s trip to this island is no different than his trip to Isfahan.” Fadavi referred to Iran’s capabilities to defend the strategic islands and said both defensive and offensive systems had been deployed in them, including brigades of IRGC marines. Because of these islands’ strategic location, he stated, the IRGC navy (IRGCN) would not allow any enemy to enter them, and any hostile move would elicit a crushing response. IRGC deputy naval commander Alireza Tangsiri said regarding the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz:

According to international sources, 40 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, and the entire length of this route is under the full and tight control of the IRGC navy that is stationed in the strait. When any kind of vessel enters the Persian Gulf, the Revolutionary Guard identifies it with listening devices, naval units, drones, and radar systems and closely monitors it. Each day 82 vessels pass through the Strait of Hormuz and they respond to the questions presented to them by the IRGC forces.10

Iran Has Claims to the UAE and Bahrain

Beyond Iran’s threats and insinuations about its military capabilities to defend its sovereignty over the islands, Iran claims that both the UAE and Bahrain belong to it historically. Majlis member Musalreza Servati claimed that historical documents indicate that states such as the UAE and Bahrain11 are linked to Iran, as are the disputed islands.12

The nationalist-conservative newspaper Jomhouri Eslami is identified with former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. When the UAE foreign minister protested Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa, Jomhouri Eslami, under the headline “A Recommendation to the Sheikhs of the Emirates,” called on the UAE sheikhs to beware of their limits and not go beyond them. According to the paper, in his reaction to Ahmadinejad’s visit, the UAE foreign minister

did not even adhere to minimal rules of speech and honor, like primitive Arabs using terms that are outside of accepted diplomatic practice. He used a language from past eras in which the residents of the principalities of the southern Persian Gulf did not yet have dollars from oil revenues, and chose to make his incorrect claim in inappropriate language. He claimed that Abu Musa is part of UAE territory and hence the Iranian president’s trip to the island was a violation of the UAE’s sovereignty! If these words do not indicate his ignorance of history, then “hands of imperialist powers and Zionists” must be behind them. Whoever carries the title of foreign minister of any country, even if it is small and similar to the smallest province of Iran, ought to be familiar with the history of the soil on which he lives. If we make the optimistic assumption that the UAE foreign minister indeed forgot or did not know history, we will remind him that not only Abu Musa but all the principalities of the southern Gulf were part of greater Iran and administered by the central Iranian government. This is a historical reality that is also documented on maps of the past (emphasis added). In light of this undeniable reality, I see a need to remind the UAE sheikhs of a few points:

  • The three islands are an inseparable part of the soil of Iran and any claim regarding them is considered an affront to Iran’s territorial sovereignty.
  • The conditions of the region have changed completely amid the tumultuous waves of the Islamic awakening. Is it not preferable that you use all of your capacities to preserve your seat and your crown? And avoid creating problems with your tongues?
  • The region and the world will view such false claims as a way of covering up the crimes and treacherous nature of the Zionists. Today the heads of the Zionist regime urgently need to distract the peoples of the region with marginal and unrealistic matters so as to shield themselves from the heavy blows of the uprisings in Arab countries. Part of this endeavor is directed, of course, at you, the sheikhs of the Emirates. We recommend that you, sheikhs of the Emirates, not become fuel for the fires of Hell that the Zionists and Western imperialism want to ignite in the region.13

Iran Wants U.S. Forces Out of the Region

In the midst of the crisis, the United States announced the deployment of its F-22 aircraft to a base in the UAE. In response, Iranian defense minister Ahmad Vahidi (formerly commander of the IRGC Qods Force) called the planes’ deployment a “damaging move that undermines security in the region and constitutes a psychological ruse aimed at sowing instability in the region, and hence Iran does not regard it as a beneficial step.” Vahidi reiterated Iran’s traditional position that the region’s security must be achieved by the local states and not by external forces.14 He added that he viewed the foreign forces in the region as “unwanted guests whose presence has no justification” and emphasized that it is Iran that plays the principal security role in the region of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, while foreign forces endanger the region’s security and pollute the Persian Gulf’s eco-system with their nuclear-powered ships. He criticized the UAE for its claim to the three islands, stating, “Other countries flourish at our expense and then they propose unjust and wrong ideas.”15  The lieutenant commander of the IRGC navy, Alireza Tansiri, asserted in this context that “Iran’s enemies are trying to stoke Iranophobia among the countries of the region so as to justify their presence in the region and increase weapons sales to the Gulf states.”16

The U.S. missile-defense program for the Gulf was also a target of Iranian criticism, and a senior official of the Iranian navy said those Gulf states that were joining the program were “naively playing into the hands of the plot that the Zionist regime and the United States are concocting in the region.” This plot, he said, was aimed at ensuring Israel’s survival, and “Iran hopes that the states along the southern shores of the Persian Gulf will seriously reconsider the matter and realize that the United States will not remain loyal to them.” He asserted that “the United States, which has many bases in the region, was trying to protect them against Iran by using Arab money (an allusion to Saudi Arabia) and stationing an anti-missile system in the region.”17

Iran Prepares for Asymmetric Naval Warfare

In light of U.S. commitments to give the Gulf states a missile-defense umbrella and boost their security through the deployment of advanced aircraft amidst the latest round of escalation over Abu Musa, Iran again stressed its superior asymmetric capabilities to fight any U.S. naval force in the Gulf, and particularly to engage in swarm attacks against U.S. ships. Recently, the director of the Maritime Industries Organization of the Iranian Defense Ministry, Mostafa Esbati, said Iran was first in the world in the manufacture of speedboats, this having been one of the lessons of the Iran-Iraq War. He claimed that the Iranian Defense Ministry regards support for research in this field as imposing a heavy obligation on those working in it. Speedboats indeed play a critical role in Iran’s asymmetrical-warfare strategy, particularly against aircraft carriers and destroyers.

Ali Fadavi, the IRGC naval commander, said that mass-produced speedboats equipped with rocket launchers have made the IRGC navy a unique force in the world. He added that while the U.S. battleships can move at a speed of 31 knots, the Iranian boats can travel twice as fast.18 Fadavi added that the capabilities of the advanced, rocket-launching Tondar frigates of the IRGC navy have been greatly improved. Referring to statements of former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates at the United States Naval Academy about the failure of the aircraft-carrier strategy, Fadavi said the United States had admitted to the carriers’ inability to cope with missile-, rocket-, and torpedo-launcher-equipped speedboats moving at a speed of 60 knots.19 Iran also emphasizes its capabilities in launching shore-to-sea and sea-to-sea missiles and its ability to hit all U.S. bases in the region.

What Next?

Amid the intensifying conflict with the West and the continuing nuclear talks, Iran is maintaining a policy of projecting force in the Gulf and surrounding areas. Iran is entrenching itself militarily along the Gulf’s shores, building new military bases and performing naval maneuvers, thereby signaling that it is prepared to confront any threat or attempt to infringe on its sovereignty. Recently Iran conducted a five-stage, week-long exercise to protect its shores and ships, practicing ship takeovers and special-forces activities. 20

Despite the tightening of sanctions, Iran is projecting great confidence toward its Gulf neighbors, particularly through naval power and its assets in the region (including the disputed islands). At the same time, Iran is exploiting the weakness of the Arab system – which is now concerned mainly with internal survival amid the Arab Spring, which has particularly affected the Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar.

Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa was meant to defiantly and bluntly underline both Iran’s sovereignty over the (mostly unpopulated) island and its ability to control what happens at the entrance to the strategic Strait of Hormuz. This deliberate Iranian move was accompanied by proclamations by senior government and IRGC officials about Iran’s advanced naval capabilities, which they said can contend well – albeit asymmetrically – with quantitatively and technologically superior American power in the Gulf. This, incidentally, involved revealing new capabilities in the areas of coastal defense, missiles, radar systems, and speedboats.

In addition, with these moves Iran is trying to signal that it is prepared for a conflict with the United States in the naval domain in case the nuclear talks with the West ultimately fail and its nuclear facilities are eventually attacked. Iran is thereby seeking to convey, both to the United States and its Gulf neighbors, that it is the ascendant power in the region, and that the region’s security is in its hands and not those of external powers. Past efforts by Iran to limit the foreign presence in the region, which even involved signing some agreements with the Gulf states, did not succeed in diminishing the presence of U.S. bases.

At the same time, exploiting the tailwind of the “Islamic awakening,” Iran keeps trying to boost its influence over the Shiite population in the Gulf states, especially in Bahrain, thereby seeking to further weaken and divide the Arab regimes.

Iran has also discerned the fragility of Bahrain and an opportunity there in light of continuing demonstrations that seek to tip the balance of power in favor of the Shiite majority in the kingdom. Therefore, Iran has come out forcefully against the announced Saudi intention to confederate with Bahrain, and has emphatically repeated its historic claim to sovereignty over Bahrain. Yet this activity has had a unifying effect on the GCC member states, which again backed the UAE on the disputed-islands issue. They fear Iran’s lengthening shadow and stepped-up activity, both in the naval domain and in political subversion in every one of these countries. The Iranian threat also enhances the Gulf states’ ties to and security dependency on the United States, with its protective umbrella.

The Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia (Egypt has “retired” from the race), are trying to muster an Arab and international response to Iran’s buildup, defiance, and power projection – so far with no great success. In any case, the present crisis concerning the islands, and the name Persian Gulf versus Arab Gulf, well reflects the changes occurring in the Middle East: essentially, the lengthening of Shiite Iran’s shadow and the shortening of that of the moderate Arab camp.

Changes in the balance of forces in the Middle East have further escalated the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran with regard to the core cleavages in the Middle East: Arabs vs. Persians, Sunni vs. Shiite, and the continued independence of the Gulf states in the face of Iran’s wish for hegemony in the region.

Given the Arabs’ weakness and lack of a charismatic figure who could lead a Sunni Arab response to the mounting Iranian challenge, the need for American power in the region – to create the necessary balance against Iran and protect energy sources – has only grown. Western capitulation in the nuclear talks with Iran will only convey a negative message and encourage Iran. In light of the weak Arab system and Western dithering, Tehran could well be tempted to make additional aggressive moves in the turbulent waters of the Persian/Arab Gulf.

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11. Iran has claimed sovereignty over Bahrain ever since it was under Persian rule (1602-1783). In 1968, when Britain announced its intention to withdraw its forces from the Gulf, Iran renewed its claim to sovereignty over the island. In a referendum held under UN auspices in 1970, the residents of Bahrain had to decide between independence and annexation to Iran. They chose independence, and in August 1971 they received it. Subsequently the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ceased to raise the issue. Since the Islamic Revolution, however, Iran has occasionally asserted that Bahrain is one of its provinces.

12. Fars News Agency, May 6, 2012.



15. Mehr News Agency, May 8, 2012