Iran's Aggressive Stance in the Gulf Sharpens Struggle for Dominance

UAE officials say Tehran is building missile sites on strategic isle

IRANIAN troops have prepared installations for ground-to-sea Silkworm missiles on a disputed island in the Persian Gulf they annexed two months ago, according to two government officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Iran's annexation of the island of Abu Musa and reports of an Iranian military buildup are exacerbating historic rivalries over who will stand as the dominant power in the Gulf region. The takeover of Abu Musa, once jointly administered with the UAE, has again shaken the region's stability.

The area has experienced something of a power vacuum since the Gulf war, when Iraq was eliminated from the contest. After the fall of the United States-backed Shah in 1979, Iran lost its leading role, and an eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, fought to settle the issue, ended with Iraq's emergence as a major power. Now Iran appears to be exercizing a more aggressive Gulf policy, as the sheikdoms, including Saudi Arabia, firm up alliances with Western nations.

These nations, critically dependent on the oil that is shipped through the Gulf, are pushing, through their Arab allies, to counter Iranian moves.

The island of Abu Musa has been administratively divided between Iran and the UAE since 1971, when Tehran laid claim to it and forcibly seized two neighboring islands, Greater and Lesser Tunb, as the British withdrew from the region.

When the Iranians effectively annexed Abu Musa in August, turning back a boatload of teachers who had arrived to open the school year on the UAE side of the island, the UAE moved quickly on the diplomatic front, securing condemnations of Iran's action from its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, from Gulf-war coalition partners Syria and Egypt, and from the Arab League.

But negotiations between Iran and the UAE last month got nowhere when Tehran refused the UAE's demand to discuss the status of the Tunbs, as well as of Abu Musa.

The UAE is now planning to take the question to the United Nations Security Council, officials say, and wants the International Court of Justice at The Hague to adjudicate the dispute - a proposal that Iran has turned down.

The uninhabited Tunbs and Abu Musa, home to a few hundred fishermen, are of no economic significance. But beyond their emotional value as "Arab land" occupied by a foreign force, they are strategically useful.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian revolutionary guards used Abu Musa as a base from which to stage raids. Now UAE officials, echoing earlier reports attributed to Iranian sources, say there are facilities on the island designed for Silkworm missiles, although the officials say the missiles themselves have not been installed.

That development, in the context of a massive Iranian rearmament program that includes the acquisition of a Russian submarine, has unnerved both the Gulf sheikhdoms and their Western protectors. There have also been reports of an Iranian purchase of nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan, but Iran says it does not possess or seek nuclear weapons.

"Abu Musa is so strategically placed at the mouth of the Gulf, we are worried about what Iran would use it for if it were theirs," says one Western diplomat here.

Iran's takeover of Abu Musa is seen as a bid to assert itself in the Gulf in the face of the security deals that its Arab neighbors have signed with Western countries since the end of the Gulf war.

"Iran sees a lot of strategic security arrangements unfolding in the Gulf, and since it has always perceived itself as the main regional power, it doesn't like not being consulted about these arrangements," says one UAE source involved in the negotiations with Tehran.

With a population of 56 million and the longest Gulf coastline of any state in the region, Iran has always insisted - both under the Shah and since the 1979 Islamic revolution - that it should bear a major responsibility for Gulf security.

But while the Shah's ambition found sympathy in Washington, the revolutionaries who toppled him have made opposition to Western influence in the Gulf a pillar of their foreign policy.

Tehran has found some sympathy recently among Arab Gulf states for its outlook, playing on divisions among them. Qatar, for example, embroiled in a border dispute with Iran's major rival, Saudi Arabia, has been strengthening ties with Iran, as has Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who has always sought to ensure his country's security by balancing Iran against other states in the region.

But Iran has been rebuffed by all its other neighbors, most forcibly by fiercely pro-Western Saudi Arabia. Kuwait has signed security pacts with the US, Britain, and France, as has Bahrain, and the UAE is currently discussing similar deals.

By turning en masse to the West to ensure Gulf security, officials and diplomats here explain, the governments of the Arabian peninsula have underlined their fundamental disagreement with Iran over what the Gulf needs securing against.

In Tehran's eyes, Gulf countries alone should take joint responsibility for their region's security, defending it from Western interference. But for the Arab Gulf states, Iran itself is the danger.

"Under the Shah the Iranians tried to impose their hegemony, and after the Shah they have continued to create all sorts of problems," complains one UAE official. "We don't see any threat from the Americans. We see the threat coming from regional powers."

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