The conciliatory noises coming out of Tehran over the past week have been encouraging, particularly for those in the region, where Tehran’s – not always positive – influence is keenly felt. The historic phone-call between Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, on Friday was a genuine breakthrough and has led to real hope in the Middle East that Iran can be brought back into the fold.
This theme was picked up by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, when he gave the UAE’s address before the United Nations on Saturday. Sheikh Abdullah said the country would seek to build on this approach and promote “security, stability and prosperity in the region”.
In particular, Sheikh Abdullah raised the issue of Iran’s continuing occupation of three strategically important islands in the Arabian Gulf, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.
Speaking before the General Assembly, Sheikh Abdullah urged the international community to push Tehran towards a peaceful settlement of this decades-old issue. Sheikh Abdullah set out what has been the UAE’s position for a long time: either Iran should sit down for direct, serious negotiations, or the issue ought to be referred to the International Court of Justice.
It would be helpful for Iran’s president to offer some sort of gesture on Abu Musa, as an indication that Iran intends to pursue a serious relationship with its neighbours, and not merely with America. So far, Iran has offered nothing, even claiming that there is nothing to discuss over the three islands. Indeed, the last president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, went further, by staging a hugely provocative visit to Abu Musa in 2012, the first time an Iranian president had visited.
For years, the UAE has pursued quiet, consistent diplomacy, refusing to be dragged into unprofitable confrontations. But Mr Rouhani ought to know that this issue is not going away. Iran and the UAE will always be neighbours and this country has a strong position under international law for its sovereignty over the three islands.
The opening from Mr Rouhani to America and the West is welcome. But there are issues in his own backyard that ought to be addressed swiftly and peacefully, issues that are holding back Iran from full integration with its neighbours.