NYT A Tiny Island Is Where Iran Makes a Stand
- NYT April 30, 2012
A Tiny Island Is Where Iran Makes a Stand
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — For Iranians, whose country’s borders have shrunk in the past
200 years after wars and unfavorable deals by corrupt shahs, territorial
issues are a delicate matter. So a renewed claim by the United Arab
Emirates to the tiny island of Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf has touched
a raw nerve.
But many here say that may just be the point.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his reactionary agenda tend to be
unpopular among the urban middle classes, but he is enjoying a rare
surge of support even in those inhospitable quarters in the growing
dispute with Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors — one that he touched off by
making a surprise visit to the island last month, a first by an Iranian
Other Iranian politicians have rushed to embrace the controversy, aware
of how it is playing at home.
A parliamentary delegation made a high-profile visit to the island on
Sunday to observe Iran’s National Day of the Persian Gulf, a normally
low-key event, which seems bound to further inflame the issue. Other
legislators have called for the establishment of a Persian Gulf
province, and want the Tehran street that the United Arab Emirates
Embassy is on renamed Abu Musa.
For many Iranians, the dispute over Abu Musa, a four-square-mile spit of
sand with about 2,000 inhabitants and surrounded by pristine blue
waters, arouses strong nationalistic feelings at a time of general
hopelessness over the devastating impact of a grinding economy, foreign
sanctions and a feeling of unprecedented isolation. To that extent, it
mirrors Iran’s nuclear program, which has also whipped up nationalistic
emotions that Mr. Ahmadinejad has used to build support for the government.
“We Iranians continuously fight and disagree like a husband and wife
during a nasty divorce,” Somaye Allahdad, 35, a Tehran homemaker who
does not always agree with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies, said over a
family lunch of traditional lamb kebab and sabzi, a sort of herbal stew.
“But when someone tries to take away our child, we team up and face the
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa, where he spoke to an audience of
sun-tanned Iranian fishermen, prompted angry reactions from Arab states
on the western shore of the Persian Gulf, which rejected his assertion
that the island is occupied by Iran. That, too, may have been part of
the plan, some Iranians believe.
“Be sure that Ahmadinejad saw those angry Arab reactions coming,” said
Mrs. Allahdad’s aunt, who would not give her name. “He needs distraction
from his internal problems.”
If that was the plan, it seems to be working. On Sunday, the Facebook
page of the Saudi leader, King Abdullah, was closed after tens of
thousands of Iranians had left the slogan “Persian Gulf forever” in the
comments section of his latest post.
At Mrs. Allahdad’s lunch, several relatives, none of whom had voted for
the president, debated loudly over his intentions, the continuing
scourge of inflation and the effects of sanctions imposed by the West
because of Iran’s nuclear program. But all concluded that Mr.
Ahmadinejad had done the right thing by visiting Abu Musa.
Mrs. Allahdad spoke of her father, who died on the front lines during
the eight-year war with Iraq when she was a young girl in 1981. “We
defended every inch of our nation with our lives, and now we should give
the Arabs our island? Over my dead body,” she said.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf have always run high, but with Iran
jockeying for the position of regional power and recent weapons
purchases by Saudi Arabia and the emirates worth more than $100 billion,
the dispute over the island takes on added significance.
According to a 1971 memorandum of understanding between Iran and the
emirate of Sharjah, the island and its energy resources are to be
divided between the two. By agreeing to the pact, the tiny emirate
prevented an invasion by Iran, which two days earlier had taken two
other disputed islands, Greater and Lesser Tunb, which were even smaller
Iran has stoutly defended its actions, saying all three islands were
Iranian territory until Britain occupied them in 1908. The United Arab
Emirates say most of the inhabitants of Abu Musa have been Arab for
centuries. In 1980, the emirates took their claim to the United Nations
Security Council, which rejected it. Most of the island’s infrastructure
like roads and schools, including a university, have been built by Iran,
and Abu Musa’s governor is Iranian.
One Iranian analyst sympathetic to the government said the ownership
issue had surfaced now as part of the Western campaign to pressure Iran
over its nuclear program, which it says is peaceful but the West
suspects is a cover for developing weapons.
“The emirates are not acting independently in this matter,” said the
analyst, Sadollah Zarei, 55, a columnist for the hard-line state Kayhan
newspaper. “Bigger powers are behind this.”
He said the West was trying to raise the pressure on Tehran ahead of the
second round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, scheduled
for May 23.
“By driving up tensions in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. and their allies
are trying to send a message to Iran: back down, or face pressure on
other fronts,” Mr. Zarei said.
Whatever the reason for the resurfacing of the Abu Musa claims, many
here agree the Iranian collective psyche can be wounded by even the
smallest verbal threat to the nation’s territorial integrity. History
has not smiled on Iran, which has lost territory in the Caucasus,
Baluchistan, Afghanistan and Bahrain after wars with Russia and highly
unfavorable land sales by a succession of shahs, among other things.
“In the past 200 years, our territory has been taken from us bit by
bit,” said Mohammad Esmael Heydari, 68, a retired journalist. He also
pointed out that the Soviet Union and Britain invaded Iran during World
“Such incidents are not quickly forgotten here,” he said.
“We do not want to lose any more territory. No more.”
While the Persian Gulf is a handy motive for stirring up nationalist
support, there is also an ethnic element to the appeal, as Mrs. Allahdad
explained after lunch. “These Arabs pretend as if they rule the region,
but they have no history, and no independence, like Iran,” she said.
“They have no right to look down upon us.”
For three years, Mrs. Allahdad and her family lived on the Iranian
island of Kish, where her husband was working. Mrs. Allahdad confided
that in all that time she had never made an effort to visit Abu Musa,
even though it was quite near. There was no point, she said, because she
had been told it was a barren place where there was nothing to do.
“I don’t need to go there,” she said. “All that matters is that it is