The timing of the recent visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the UAE island of Abu Musa, occupied by Iran since 1971, has to be seen in its wider context, as well as in terms of the content and language of the speech before the few hundred Iranian settlers of the occupied island who gathered to listen to him.
The visit and speech were both provocative and unwarranted. However, unquestionably it is one more sign of the state of nervousness gripping the Iranian leadership since the surprise development of the popular uprising in Syria.
The Iranian leadership feels the heat and stands helpless to save its ally in Damascus from the rage of its own people. To understand the cause and the actual degree of this state of panic, one has to appreciate the value of the Syrian regime for Iranian strategic interests. Indeed, the possible collapse of the Syrian regime is a matter of great concern for Iran, as it could be the biggest setback suffered by it on a strategic level since the capitulation in the Iraq-Iran war.
Syria is the only Arab ally of the Iranian regime, it is the ‘crown jewel’ and the cornerstone of the triangular alliance that brings together Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. This strategic alliance, which has been in existence for the past 30 years, has given Iran a unique status and commanding influence in Arab and Middle East politics. Thanks to the Syrian regime, Iran became part of the war and peace process with Israel and became more important than many Arab states in the attempts to settle the Palestinian issue.
Iran is a major player in the internal politics of Lebanon and Iraq, and without Syrian support, Hezbollah could not be created or survive. The Syrian regime has acted as an agent of Iran in providing support to the pro-Iran Shia opposition groups in Bahrain, and in other Arab states. In reality, the Syrian regime is an indispensable and irreplaceable ally, which has served as a vital door that allowed Iran a powerful entry into Arab politics. Yet this door is on the verge of collapse. Even before the events in Syria, the Arab Spring had already produced a negative outcome for Iran, as Islamist groups are today legitimately in control of the governments in a number of key Arab states. Tehran’s difficult position following the events of the Arab Spring was compounded by effective international sanctions imposed on Iran, which have crippled the economy and paralysed its financial system.
In its drive to save the Syrian dictatorship, the Iranian regime has been severely critical of anyone supporting the people’s uprising in Syria. Tehran’s request to move the 5+1 negotiations on the nuclear file from Istanbul to Baghdad was perhaps intended as a punishment of Turkey, as a senior Iranian leader stated that with Ankara’s support of the revolt in Syria, Turkey was no longer trusted or qualified to host the negotiations. The Arab Gulf states became the target of a vicious media campaign of vilification orchestrated by the official Iranian media as well as pro-Iran Arab media. Further, Iranian intelligence is desperately trying to open a front in Bahrain and in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia to destabilise the Gulf States and to divert attention from the deteriorating situation in Syria.
Against this background, the Iranian President made his provocative visit to the occupied Abu Musa Island and delivered an inflammatory speech. Yet, the Iranian regime has to comprehend the fact of human history that no one can save a dictator from the wrath of his own people. Iranian attempts to divert attention and open new fronts in the states supporting the Arab Spring, and in particular the popular Syrian uprising, will not bear fruit. President Ahmadinejad’s visit and speech in the occupied Abu Musa island cannot change legal reality or alter political and historical facts. The UAE islands are illegally occupied territories, as much as the Palestinian territories. Occupation cannot and will not be legalised or legitimised by irresponsible unilateral political acts. If the Iranians are sincere about their call to improve relations with the Arabian Gulf States, a radical change in their attitude toward the occupied UAE islands is the starting and logical point to initiate badly needed confidence-building measures in the Gulf region.
Dr Mustafa Alani is the Director of the Security and Defence Department, at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center