Iran island claim fires Arab fury

SENIOR Iranian officials are due to hold talks with United Arab Emirates officials in Abu Dhabi tomorrow to discuss how to resolve a dispute over three small islands which has erupted like ulcers at the mouth of the Gulf. The UAE has accused Iran of illegally occupying the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, strategically placed to control the shipping lanes through the straits of Hormuz.

It is a dispute which has provoked furious reaction in the Arab world. Foreign ministers of the Arab League have said they want the matter taken to the United Nations. Egypt has called for the implementation of the so-called Damascus Declaration - the arrangement whereby Egypt and Syria hoped to get strategic, military, political, diplomatic and financial benefits from the Gulf Co- operation Council as a pay-off for their support during the Gulf war.

Osama al-Baz, a political adviser to Egypt's President Mubarak, has declared: 'We insist that any settlement of this dispute must safeguard Arab rights. It must preserve the rights of the UAE, its sovereignty on its territory and territorial waters and its economic rights.'

Less clear has been the Syrian position. Syria finds itself caught between its old close alliance with Iran, and its new-found friends in the Gulf.

The territorial dispute, like so many in the region, has its origins in the obscure annals of Britain's imperial history. On 30 November 1971, two days before the proclamation of the United Arab Emirates grouping Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm al- Quwain, imperial troops of the Shah of Iran occupied the three islands. It was a clear attempt to move in as the British moved out.

Iranian troops landed on and occupied Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, then under the jurisdiction of the ruler of Ras al- Khaimah. The day before, Iran reached agreement with the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Khali bin Muhammad al Qassimi, on its claim to Abu Musa, through the offices of the British. Iran would station a garrison on Abu Musa, while Sharjah would exercise jurisdiction over the rest of the island.

Iran's action was condemned by the Arab world. But 20 years on, the dispute still rankles. It is the same drama, the identical stage, but with players in different roles.

The dispute came up again last month when Iran turned back a shipload of workers from the UAE. It has since repeatedly asserted its sole title to the islands.

Iran's action seems at variance with the more pragmatic approach over the past years of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to improve relations with the Gulf states. There are both domestic and external reasons: it is a cost- effective ploy to rally support behind a nationalistic cause and divert attention from difficulties at home; and, by keeping the nervous Gulf states on edge, Iran hopes they will agree to cut their oil production, and help push up prices for Iranian oil.