Sunday, 22 March 2009

Dear Iran: Our Islands for a Gulf that carries your name

As tensions continue to rise in the Gulf because of religious, foreign and nationalistic forces, a breakthrough in the north-south divide would be a giant step forward. So I propose a solution: the Arab Gulf States recognise once and for all the name “Persian Gulf” for the 7,000-year-old, 600-mile body of water that separates us from our Iranian neighbour; and in return, Iran ends its occupation of the Arab islands and returns their sovereignty to the United Arab Emirates.

The issue of naming is as old as words themselves. Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” (and in this case, taste just as salty).

The Gulf’s name seems to be a source of serious irritation to Iran. It is the Iranian G Spot that its Gulf neighbours could potentially take advantage of to resolve a decades-old dispute.

For it seems that nothing irks the Iranian government, so desperate to prove its status as a regional superpower, than that its smaller southern neighbours don’t give it the respect it thinks it deserves, and continue to refer to its southern sea shore as Arabian. The name carries much significance for Iran, for it is through this name that it extends its psychological influence over its neighbours. Take the example of Bahrain, an island that floats on the “Arabian Gulf”; if Iran is able finally to win approval from the seven Arab Gulf nations, then Bahrain would be officially floating on a Gulf that is Persian.

Because of the wealth and influence of the Arab Gulf countries, the rest of the 22 nations of the Arab League continue to refer to the Gulf as Arabian. No matter how insignificant this issue seems to the average observer, it is of high importance in Tehran. In June 2006 Iran banned The Economist, and before it National Geographic, for not using the name Persian Gulf in their maps and literature.

On the other hand, there is the sensitive issue of the three Arab islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. Iran seized a 72-hour window between the official British withdrawal from the Trucial Coast emirates on November 30, 1971, and the official formation of the UAE on December 2, 1971, to occupy the three islands – which puts it in the same league as Israel as not only an occupier of Arab lands, but also a land usurper.

Iran continuously ratchets up the rhetoric against Israel, yet does not shy away from mimicking its behaviour when it becomes convenient for it to do so. Examples include continuous building on disputed territories and perpetually procrastinating over a settlement proposed by the UAE and its sister GCC countries – referring the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

In September 2007 Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, announced that the country “will abide by the international verdict, regardless of the outcome”; but still there was no overture from the other side. What does Iran have to fear other than that it has no legitimacy on this issue? If this matter is resolved, the bounty for Iran is very attractive, including international recognition, a melting of the ice in its relationship with its southern neighbours and a potential investment boom in the country by the wealthy Arabian Gulf states. The GCC would also have less reason to be suspicious of Iran’s government on other issues, such as its nuclear project, if Iran agrees to international arbitration. It actually has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In fact, this would not be the first time that a Gulf islands dispute was settled in the ICJ. In 2001 Bahrain and Qatar accepted the ruling of the international court on the division of the Hawar and Zubarah islands after a dispute that had lasted for more than 60 years; now, their relations have never been better.

It is also quite astonishing for us in the Gulf, who are always expected to aid various Arab causes and are often accused of being supportive of this or that power, to observe the continuous casual visits by Hamas, Hizbollah and Syrian officials to Iran – which is occupying our land. And yet we are asked to support these entities who seek assistance from the occupier of our lands.

So as both sides continue to hold something that the other side desperately wants, I propose that Iran finally heed our decades-old call to end its occupation of three Arab islands and in return the Gulf Arabs agree to officially recognise this body of water as Persian (even if seven Arabian nations and only one Persian country lie on its shores).

So, indeed, what’s in a name? In this case, a peace offering.

This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday, March 22nd 2009

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