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Diplomats Puzzled By Iran Skirmishes With Three Nations In Persian Gulf

by Peyman Pejman

Iran In Political Turmoil, But Improved Ties With Neighbors (Jan 2004)

(IPS) DUBAI -- A series of escalating naval conflicts in the Gulf waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman has cast an ominous shadow over the region.

Officials from the three Gulf countries and many foreign diplomats are also perplexed over the recent hostile actions and are seeking ways to diffuse the tension.

Western diplomats and officials in the United Arab Emirates revealed to IPS that there were other incidents that have not been reported -- thus putting the beginning of the clashes back to an earlier date than the one announced by Tehran.

They say in addition to Qatar, Omani coast guards had also shot and killed at least one Iranian crew member and that Tehran had confiscated another UAE boat. But neither Iran or UAE have commented about it.

"The problem is that the Iranians are upping the ante for some reason," a western diplomat in the United Arab Emirates told IPS.

"They are either provocatively sending their ships into the territorial waters of the neighboring countries or confiscating UAE boats in the disputed waters," he said.

"The question is why," the diplomat asked.

The latest round of hostilities occurred last week in two separate incidents.

The first was when Iran announced it had seized a UAE fishing boat and its five crew members near Siri, an Iranian island between Iran and the UAE.

A few days earlier, six fishing boats from the UAE and their 23 crew members were seized by Tehran while they were fishing near the Iranian island of Qeshm, situated just a few kilometres off the Iranian mainland and near the Strait of Hormuz.

This tension started nearly a month ago when Iran said that one of its fishing boats together with its crew were seized and detained by a UAE naval vessel in Gulf waters, prompting the Iranian foreign ministry to accuse the UAE of "unacceptable behavior."

Iran and the United Arab Emirates have been locked in a dispute since 1971 over three uninhabited atolls in the Abu Mussa and Tunb island chain. These atolls are roughly half way between their two shores.

While the Iranian media played up the arrests, UAE officials, however, remained mum -- saying they wanted to settle the matter peacefully.

"We were talking to the Iranians before they made it public and there were hopes that the issue could have been resolved and resulted in the release of the jailed sailors," a ranking official in the United Arab Emirates told IPS.

But the spats just did not end there.

On Sunday, Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned Qatar's ambassador to protest the killing of an Iranian fisherman by the Qatar navy.

Iran asked the envoy to explain the shooting in the early hours of Friday morning.

Two other fishermen were hurt and the Islamic Republic demanded the return of two confiscated Iranian fishing boats along with their detained crews.

Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Ali Asghar Ahmadi told state television the boats received a warning that they had strayed into Qatari waters.

"After negotiations, the boats were about to leave the area when the Qatari navy shot at them thinking they were escaping, killing one sailor and injuring two," he said.

Qatar, on the other hand, made no public statements over the incident.

Iran and Qatar share the world's biggest natural gas reservoir. Tehran last month warned Qatar not to tap more than its share from the pool that contains seven percent of globe's natural gas reserves.

Though no one seems to be sure about Iran's motives, there is much speculation.

They mostly relate to internal politics of the Islamic republic rather than diplomatic problems with any of the Gulf countries, imply officials.

"We have tried to negotiate behind the scenes with the Iranian government and every time we are close to reaching a solution, certain hard-line factions make sure it fails," said the ranking United Arab Emirates offical.

While Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and his Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi are considered "moderate" and would like better relations with the outside world, more religiously dogmatic elements within the Iranian regime oppose such a policy.

Many of those elements have traditionally been part of the Iranian military and security apparatus, including the Revolutionary Guards and components of the navy.

"The hard-liners did well in the past parliamentary elections. They believe they have Khatami caged in domestically. Now it is the time to spread their wings more freely in foreign policy issues," said a western diplomat in the Gulf.

The sources say one reason Iran maybe trying to provoke Qatar and Oman is because both countries have followed U.S. policies in the region.

"I don't believe the Iranians are intensifying the situation with the Gulf countries because of any serious problems with either of the countries," said a Gulf security analyst, who did not want to be named.

"But I think with U.S. forces so close to Iran's borders in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington pushing Iran to give up nuclear plans, Tehran is getting nervous," the analyst said. "Iran is sending a message to Washington through recent events in the Gulf waters that the United States should not tighten the noose on it too tightly."

Escalating its war of words with Washington, Iran threatened Wednesday to resume its uranium enrichment program if the International Atomic Energy Agency passes a toughly worded resolution condemning Tehran for over its cooperation with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

The United States said in response that such tactics increase widespread suspicions that Iran is using its civilian nuclear power program as a cover to clandestinely acquire atomic weapons.

But the security analyst said the likelihood was stronger that Iranian hardliners were trying to muscle the UAE over the three disputed islands.

In May, it was reported the UAE had sought European Union mediation over the territorial conflict. But the EU later denied it was getting involved issuing a statement, saying: "There has been no request for mediation. There is no interference."

"If you add all of these factors together, you see two things: Iranian hard-liners trying to elbow in their way, and Iran sending a message to the United States saying, 'Don't push us harder'," added the security analyst.

But a Gulf-based diplomat said Iran's actions with the UAE, Qatar and Oman are mere spats and would not amount to anything.

"Iran does not want to alienate these countries because it has good economic ties with them -- especially with the UAE," he told IPS.

"Picking quarrels with them would just isolate Iran further. This is something Tehran does not need, especially if it is trying to settle scores with the United States indirectly through these countries."

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Albion Monitor June 16, 2004 (

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