x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Iran's belligerent diplomacy is self-defeating

Iran has always pursued a belligerent policy in regards to the three occupied UAE islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs and Lesser Tunbs, But its latest piece of political theatre comes at a particularly bad time.

It could not have been anything but a deliberate provocation. On Wednesday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, visited Abu Musa, the strategic island that Iran illegally seized from Sharjah in 1971. In response, the UAE recalled its ambassador from Tehran yesterday.

Iran has always pursued a belligerent policy in regards to the three occupied UAE islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs and Lesser Tunbs, rebuffing every overture of a negotiated, mutually beneficial resolution. However, this latest piece of political theatre by Mr Ahmadinejad comes at a particularly bad time.

It is no secret to anyone that tensions are rising in the region because of Iran's nuclear programme, which seems to be intended to provide at least the capability of building a nuclear weapon. In the last few months, Tehran has seemed increasingly bent on aggravating relations with Gulf Arab countries. Last year, there was evidence of an assassination plot targeting the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which was followed by increasingly irresponsible rhetoric from senior Iranian leaders.

All of this amounts to a deliberate campaign of provocation.

But it is worth remembering that Iran's foreign policy is often dictated in large part by domestic politics. Mr Ahmadinejad has built his career on pandering to conservative elements of Iranian society, although with limited success lately after his public row with the clerical leadership and his faction's losses in recent elections.

The timing, also, is hardly a coincidence. In Istanbul tomorrow, Iranian negotiators are to meet representatives of the five UN veto powers and Germany for new talks on Iran's nuclear programme and the tightening international sanctions. In that context, Mr Ahmadinejad's visit to Abu Musa should remind the world that Iran's whole nuclear gambit, vague and self-defeating though it may be, is supposed to be a means to an end, and that end is enhanced regional influence.

Certainly, Iran does face considerable economic and diplomatic challenges because of its self-declared enmity with the United States since 1979. But what Tehran's leaders have failed to understand is that they must live in this region and with the relationships that they forge with their neighbours. With 78 million people, great natural wealth, and a diverse society and culture, Iran should be an important, respected and constructive partner in the region. Instead, it pursues a policy of provocation that only breeds mistrust.

The UAE has long called for bilateral talks on the issue of the islands, international arbitration or a binding reference to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Iran has rebuffed all these proposals. Mr Ahmadinejad's Abu Musa visit shows that, even at a time of peril, Iran's current leadership cannot decide on a sensible course.