A summit of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo called on Iran to stop its “expansionist policies” and interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries – drawing an angry response from the Iranian foreign ministry. According to the Arab press, the Arab Ministerial Quartet Committee also voiced support for the United Arab Emirate to reassert its sovereignty over the three disputed islands of the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa, and called on Tehran to cooperate to peacefully resolve the dispute. The Arab leaders also condemned the Iranian government’s construction of housing facilities in the three islands to change the demographic composition of the islands. The ministerial meeting further called on Iran to cease military maneuvers on and near the economic zone of the islands and in close proximity to UAE’s air and water zones.
A statement released at the end of the summit on Thursday accused Iran of violating UN Security Council resolutions by continuing to provide weapons to militant groups in the Arab states, particularly alleged Iranian missile supplies to the Yemeni Houthis. The statement also called into question Iran’s commitment to the 2015 nuclear agreement and the UNSC Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran to refrain from ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
Reacting to the Arab League’s statement, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi said Arab leaders’ demands were “unacceptable, worthless and illogical.”
Comment: The long-standing, yet low-intensity, dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the ownership of the three islands predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign that Iran exploited the withdrawal of British forces from the Gulf and seized the islands on November 30, 1971 – just a day before the UAE gained independence from Britain. Prior to that, the islands were ruled by Sharjah, now one of UAE’s seven emirates. Under a 1971 agreement with Britain, the Shah government was permitted to have a military garrison on Abu Musa, while civil administration of the island was divided between Iran and the UAE after the latter’s independence in December of that year.
After the fall of the Shah, however, the revolutionary regime in Tehran initially honored that agreement but soon claimed sovereignty over the islands. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) also began to establish a presence there and used Abu Musa, the largest of the three islands, to launch attacks against oil tankers during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. In 2008, Iran said it was building maritime offices on Abu Musa – heightening tension with the UAE and other Gulf states. And in recent years, top Iranian military officials have frequently visited Abu Musa.
The small size of the islands belies their strategic significance – not only to the UAE and Iran but also for the stability of global oil market and the national security interests of the United States and its regional allies. This is because the islands are located near the Strait of Hormuz and are commanding shipping lanes along which about 20 percent of world’s oil passes every day. Iran has on several occasions threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the United States or Israel launches a military attack against its nuclear installations.