TEHRAN, Iran – There would seem to be enough points of tension to keep Iran and its Gulf Arab rivals fully occupied: Tehran's nuclear program, accusations of Iranian meddling in Bahrain's uprising, Iranian threats to block Gulf oil shipping lanes. But it's all been overshadowed by three contested islands that Iran wants to turn into a tourist draw.
For more than a week, the political temperature has been rising since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a surprise visit to the Gulf outpost Abu Musa, the largest in the three-island cluster controlled by Iran but also claimed by the United Arab Emirates.
On Thursday, Iran's ground forces commander spoke for the first time about the readiness to defend the tiny islands between Iran and the UAE.
"We will not allow any country to carry out an invasion," Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan was quoted as saying on state TV. "If these disturbances are not solved through diplomacy, the military forces are ready to show the power of Iran to the offender. Iran will strongly defend its rights."
It appeared to be a reply to Tuesday's statement by senior Gulf officials pledging full support to the UAE and saying any "aggressions" would be considered an act against the entire six-nation bloc, known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is led by Iran's main regional foe Saudi Arabia.
Despite the tough talk, the chances of armed conflict still seem very remote. But the rumblings were enough for Washington to take notice. State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Tuesday for a "peaceful resolution" of the dispute through international mediation, but noted that a visit like Ahmadinejad's last week "only complicate efforts to settle the issue."
The motivations are still unclear for Ahmadinejad's trip — the first by an Iranian head of state to Abu Musa since it came under Tehran's control in 1971. But it suddenly turned a normally back-burner Gulf dispute into a diplomatic tempest.
The UAE recalled its ambassador to Iran and hammered Tehran with harshly worded declarations that were in stark contrast to the usual cautious tones from Abu Dhabi on regional affairs. After the UAE canceled an exhibition soccer match with Iran, the head of the UAE's soccer federation quipped: "A friendly match should be between friends."
Abu Musa sits like a sentinel over the western edge of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, the route for one-fifth of the world's oil supply. Iran's Revolutionary Guards and U.S. Navy warships patrol the narrow waterway, which Iran had threatened to choke off in retaliation for tougher Western sanctions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran took control of Abu Musa and two nearby islands — the Greater and Lesser Tunbs — after British forces left the region. Tehran maintains that an agreement signed eight years before its 1979 Islamic Revolution between the shah and the ruler of one of the UAE's seven emirates, Sharjah, gives it the right to administer Abu Musa and station troops there.
There was no agreement on the other two islands. The UAE insists they belonged to the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah until Iran captured them by force days before the UAE statehood in 1971.
Days after Ahmadinejad's visit, Iran's official news agency IRNA described plans to turn Abu Musa into a tourist center and a showcase for Persian culture. Tehran claims the Gulf islands have been part of states that flourished on the Iranian mainland from antiquity until the early 20th century.
This brought a fresh barrage of outrage from the UAE.
"This visit will not change the legal status of these islands which are part and parcel of the UAE national soil," said the UAE's foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Iranian lawmaker Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash, a member of the parliament's influential national security committee, fired back that that UAE was once part of the ancient Persian empire. "Iran has the power" to make the UAE pay for its demands over the islands, he told the Ya Lesarat weekly in Tehran.
An Iranian political analyst, Mohammad Ali Mohatadi, interpreted Ahmadinejad's foray to Abu Musu as part of internal political battles. Over the past year Ahmadinejad has challenged the ruling clerics over the extent of presidential power. Iran's Foreign Ministry, which has always handled sensitive issues such as the disputed islands, is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than Ahmadinejad.
"This is linked to the internal competitions," said Mohatadi, a member of the Tehran-based Center for Strategic Studies of the Middle East. "Everybody is trying to express his idea on the case to show that he is more active. The remarks have no purpose. It is serving the other side, mostly."
The UAE's official news agency WAM carried a biting editorial from the Gulf Today newspaper Thursday that called Ahmadinejad's Abu Musa trip "an unmistakably provocative gesture."
"The status quo cannot be allowed to continue," it said. "Iran should realize that its behavior — as if no such problem exists — will not make the standoff disappear. The UAE is determined to regain its legitimate rights."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.