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Is Iran's macho posturing on disputed Abu Musa island aimed at the UAE?

  • 1 Jan 2019

Experts say Iranian army chief General Mohammad Baqeri's statement from the island is "an open challenge" to the UAE, especially when the Gulf state has started cosying up to Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad.

Military units of the IRGC Ground Force are seen as they launched war games in the Gulf, December 22, 2018. ( Reuters )

Iranian army chief General Mohammad Baqeri lashed out at "regional enemies" on Tuesday, warning them against bringing in the US and hatching "plots" in the Persian Gulf. 

The statement was full of symbolism, as Baqeri spoke from Abu Musa island, which been a dispute between Iran and the UAE. This also comes in the backdrop of UAE's U-turn on Syria. From being one of the most vocal critics of Bashar al Assad to opening up an embassy in Damascus, the oil-rich kingdom has departed from its previous foreign policy, which was to overthrow pro-Iranian Assad regime and replace it with the one which has the blessings of the Gulf coalition. 

Iran holds the island since the Britain left it in 1971, overlooking an agreement with the UAE that called for joint control of the territory.

“The (Iranian) chief of staff's speech against the regional enemies from the Abu Musa island is an open challenge against the UAE,” said Omer Duran, an Istanbul based Middle East expert. " 

“Baqeri’s warning from the island, which is also claimed by the UAE, means that Iran is not so far from the UAE and Iran  is watching them closely."

Duran said access to Abu Musa island gives Iran a strategic edge over the UAE, since it is located in the Strait of Hormuz. A third of the world’s sea-borne oil passes through the strait from the Middle East crude producers to major Asian markets. 

Iran recently warned that they will block the strait if the US imposed sanctions weren't lifted soon enough.  

“Amid the sovereignty disputes, Iran has shown the capacity to possesses the lands that are claimed by its enemies,” Duran said.  

Baqeri, the Iranian military general, stressed on the need to sideline what he called "aliens" in order to achieve regional peace. “Security in the Persian Gulf islands has been achieved through the struggles of the top forces and using most updated military equipment,” he said.

“Ensuring region security is possible only through the company of all regional states and presence of aliens is disruptive to this aim.”

The UAE justified its foreign policy reversal saying the kingdom wanted to normalise ties with Assad and curb risks of regional interference in “Arab, Syrian affairs” - an apparent reference to non-Arab Iran, whose support for Assad has been critical to his war effort.

After Bahrain and the UAE reopening their embassies in Damascus, Duran said the two kingdoms have a major influence over Saudi Arabia when it comes to devising policies for the Middle East.

Duran, however, doesn’t expect that either Iran or the UAE will start any serious confrontation against each other. 

The US presence in the Gulf

The USS John C. Stennis, an American warship, entered the Persian Gulf on December 22, marking the US presence in the region as tensions between Tehran and Washington are soaring. 

The US-Iranian war of words has escalated since the US president Donald Trump took Washington out of a world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran in May, and re-imposed sanctions on its banking and energy sectors. 

In recent years, there have been periodic confrontations between the Revolutionary Guards and U.S. military in the Gulf, but the number of incidents has dropped in recent months.

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