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NYT A Tiny Island Is Where Iran Makes a Stand

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  • Paul
    NYT April 30, 2012 A Tiny Island Is Where Iran Makes a Stand By THOMAS ERDBRINK
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2012
      NYT April 30, 2012
      A Tiny Island Is Where Iran Makes a Stand


      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
      and uninhabited.

      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
      War II.

      “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
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