The United Arab Emirates, angered by the Iranian president’s visit to a Gulf island both countries claim, warned on Monday that the dispute could not “go on forever” and urged Tehran to agree to talks or international arbitration.
Tensions rose last week following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa, one of three Gulf islands also claimed by the UAE and located near important oil shipping channels at the mouth of the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
“We cannot have this matter going on forever,” UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan told a news conference in Abu Dhabi.
“We have to have a clear agenda, a deadline for negotiations and if there is no outcome ... then we can either go to the International Court of Justice or to international arbitration.”
The UAE has recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations, and also cancelled a friendly soccer match with Iran’s national team set for Tuesday, in response to what its officials called a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.
The visit also drew criticism from regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, whose cabinet said on Monday Ahmadinejad’s trip had violated UAE sovereignty and was a “transgression of efforts towards a peaceful solution of the issue of the UAE islands”, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Ahmadinejad visited Abu Musa, some 60 km (40 miles) off the UAE, on Wednesday during a tour of Iran’s Gulf coast.
The Islamic Republic says its sovereignty over the three islands is not negotiable but has called for talks with the UAE to clear up “misunderstandings”.
Iran urged the Gulf states not to “complicate” matters, on the eve of a meeting in Qatar on Tuesday of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to discuss the issue.
“We hope the other sides will act with wisdom and patience towards occasional misunderstandings, otherwise matters may become too complicated for a solution,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, quoted by the student news agency ISNA.
“We want to have the best possible relations with the UAE, as our trade and economic relations are significant. Misunderstandings occur at times that can be resolved through bilateral talks,” Salehi said.
But media, several politicians and clerics in Iran were scathing of the UAE's protest, highlighting the widely held belief in the Islamic republic that the islands always belonged to their country.
Iran Daily, a government newspaper that publishes in English, wrote in an editorial that Abu Musa “belongs to Iran having more than 7,000 years of Iranian history and culture.”
The newspaper also criticized Britain, which it said “cut out many Iranian territories” and made them stand-alone nations on the southern side of the Gulf.
It said that Iran “did not have any policies to demand the return of what belonged to Iran” but it will not accept “giving away even an iota of Iranian land.”
Iran, then under the rule of the Western-backed shah, gained control of the islands of Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb in 1971, as Britain granted independence to its Gulf protectorates and withdrew its forces.
Abu Musa, the only inhabited island of the three, was placed under joint administration in a deal with Sharjah, now part of the UAE.
Abu Dhabi says the Iranians have since taken over the entire island, which controls access to the oil-rich Gulf, and have installed an airport and military base on Abu Musa.
Sheikh Abdullah said failure to resolve the dispute would leave “serious ramifications on the stability and security of the international community especially as 40 percent of the world’s energy goes through the channels of these islands.”