ARAB concern over Iran's virtual annexation of a strategic island in the Strait of Hormuz shows signs of galvanizing a region still recovering from the Gulf war.
The 21-member Arab League, showing rare unity, early this week condemned the Iranian "aggression" and warned that it could threaten the region's stability.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad met Wednesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for talks that were expected to include discussion of Iran's actions, and Syria, Iran's closest Arab ally, has reportedly initiated indirect contact with Tehran in a bid to defuse the worsening standoff.
Yesterday Iraq accused Iran of reviving the late Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi's expansionist dreams and called the occupation "part of an imperialist plan to alter the region's geography."
"Iranian officials say they don't have expansionary plans but their deeds prove otherwise," says an Arab League diplomat. "It's a matter of great concern to all the Arab world."
In response Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani on Wednesday called the international criticism "a conspiracy to create a nuisance in the region," according to Iranian radio.
Iran also accused the United States and Britain of contributing to the crisis. "Who can fail to see the hand of the powers present in the Persian Gulf, of America and of that old and ominous colonialist - Britain - in this affair?" supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech broadcast on Tehran radio.
Since March, Iran has all but annexed Abu Musa, an island that overlooks the Strait of Hormuz. The waterway is the main shipping route for the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
In April Iran expelled scores of foreigners working for the United Arab Emirates on Abu Musa. The following month it turned back a boat carrying more than 100 passengers from the Emirates. The UAE, its quiet diplomacy with Iran exhausted, has turned to the Arab League for support.
"The Iranians are taking advantage of the absence of Iraq, the destruction of Iraqi power, and the absence of an Arab will in the area," said Fahmy Howeidi, an Egyptian writer on Iranian and Islamic affairs. "From Abu Musa they can control the Strait of Hormuz."
Iran occupied the three islands in 1971, one day before British troops withdrew from the region and the UAE was formed from the seven lower Gulf sheikdoms. Iran also took control of two nearby islands, but shared Abu Musa with the UAE under a formal agreement. But Iran has used Abu Musa as a military base since the Iran-Iraq war.
Tehran says the agreement provided only for shared administration while giving ownership to Iran.
"This is one of the hot issues at the moment," the Arab League diplomat says. "The other issues are more chronic. The taking of Abu Musa was an action that needed immediate reaction."
Of the Arab world's poor internal relations since Iraq's invasion and ouster from Kuwait, he adds, "After the Gulf crisis there were a lot of differences between Arab countries. Any threat to the security of the Arab world would definitely help get [the countries] back together."
Iran's relations with its Gulf neighbors had improved in the years since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. It condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 but remained neutral during the crisis.
But the weakening of Iraq following its defeat in Kuwait has renewed fears in parts of the Middle East that Iran's growing military and political strength poses a threat to the region's stability. The seizure of Abu Musa has only heightened those concerns.
"The prevailing view in this region is that the Iranians are stirring up trouble," says an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official.
The recent flare-up of tension comes amid reports in the Western press that Iran has purchased three submarines from the former Soviet Union.
Western diplomats have reportedly said that Iran intends to use Abu Musa as a submarine base. If the sale is completed, US military officials warn that the balance of naval power in the Gulf would be altered.