Despite the wave of diplomacy sweeping the region with the rapprochement between Iran and some of its neighboring countries, the dark clouds of a long-running territorial dispute between Tehran and Abu Dhabi over three Persian Gulf islands continue to hover overhead.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani in a strongly-worded statement Saturday, a day after the Arab League summit in the Saudi city of Jeddah, decried the joint communique issued at the summit, referring to "accusations and false claims" in it.
While "welcoming the constructive approach of some countries," Kanaani hit out at the 22-member pan-Arab organization for making "repetitive claims," asserting that Iran's actions "are in line with the exercise of sovereignty over its territory, and any claim in this regard is rejected."
Although he stopped short of mentioning the three strategic islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa located in the Strait of Hormuz, the hint was clear enough.
The three islands have been administered by Iran since 1971, eight years before the Iranian Revolution, but are claimed by the United Arab Emirates as part of its territory.
The territorial dispute has been a key sticking point in Iran-UAE relations over the years, with the two neighbors on numerous occasions engaging in verbal duels at international forums.
While Iran maintains that the islands are an "inseparable part" of its territory, the UAE lays equal claim to them, backed by other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
Yaseen Taqizadeh, a Persian Gulf affairs analyst, said the dispute dates back more than five decades and the recent upgradation of ties between Tehran and Abu Dhabi is unlikely to resolve the issue.
"The dispute over the sovereignty of three islands is rooted in history, with both sides making competing claims," he told Anadolu. "It will continue to be a bone of contention between them regardless of recent developments unless they agree to engage in meaningful dialogue."
- Claims and counter-claims
In February, President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to Beijing, the first by an Iranian head of state in two decades, was overshadowed by a controversy related to the joint statement issued by China and the GCC during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia in December.
The statement backed the UAE's demand for the "resolution of the dispute" over the three Persian Gulf islands, sparking an outcry in Iran and almost creating a diplomatic row between Tehran and Beijing.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian took to Twitter and asserted that Tehran "will not allow any country to disrespect its territorial integrity." The veiled warning in the Chinese language was directed at Beijing.
Raisi's key aide and deputy chief of staff, Mohammad Jamshidi, was particularly blunt, issuing what he called "a reminder to colleagues in Beijing." His statement came after the Chinese ambassador to Iran was summoned to convey Tehran's "strong dissatisfaction."
"Raisi's visit to Beijing, although planned in advance, was an exercise in controlling the damage from the China-GCC statement, and it eventually did more than many had expected – laying the groundwork for Iran's reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states," said Taqizadeh.
Weeks after the Iranian president's China visit, Iran's then-top security official Ali Shamkhani dashed off to Beijing in March to sign an agreement with his Saudi Arabian counterpart to restore diplomatic ties between the two regional rivals. China played the peacemaker.
Shamkhani's next stop, interestingly, was Abu Dhabi, where he held wide-ranging talks with top Emirati officials, including his counterpart Tahnoun bin Zayed. The two sides agreed to "resolve misunderstandings" and "expand relations to the highest level."
It is not known, however, whether the dispute over the three Persian Gulf islands featured in discussions between the two sides.
"It's highly likely that the dispute over the three islands figured in Shamkhani's discussions with Emirati officials," said Milad Hatam, a researcher with a focus on Middle East affairs.
Shamkhani stepped down Monday from his position as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council after 10 years and was replaced by an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander.
- Iran-UAE relations
The UAE and Iran restored diplomatic ties in August last year, which the Emirati Foreign Ministry in a statement at the time said was "to achieve the common interests of the two countries and the wider region."
The rapprochement came six years after Abu Dhabi recalled its ambassador to Tehran in solidarity with Riyadh after the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the Iranian capital was stormed by an angry mob in January 2016 following the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
The UAE returned its envoy to Tehran in August last year and Iran appointed its ambassador to Abu Dhabi last month, with both sides expressing a commitment to upgrade ties.
After Iran appointed its ambassador to the Arab country in April, the top diplomats of the two countries spoke over the phone and described bilateral relations as "forward-looking."
"There is no denying that relations between Iran and the UAE have improved since last year with regular communication between the two sides at various levels, but the resolution of the dispute over the three islands holds the key," said Hatam.
The status quo, he said, means they will continue to engage in verbal duels in international forums, like in September 2021, when they traded barbs at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.
At the time, the Emirati deputy foreign minister staked claim to the islands and called on Iran to end its "occupation," to which the Iranian mission in the UN responded by saying that the islands were an "inseparable" part of Iran's territory.
"I think it's very much possible for the two sides to settle the dispute through meaningful dialogue since the window of communication remains open between them," said Taqizadeh.