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Comment | Small Islands, Gross Appeal to Persian Nationalism

by ARASH KARAMI

02 May 2012 06:01Comments

The cynical side to the wrangle over Abu Musa and the Tunbs.

Arash Karami is a frequent contributor. He also co-writes the "Behind the Curtain" blog for Tehran Bureau.
[ opinion ] The trip by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the tiny island of Abu Musa in April has not only sparked a diplomatic row between Iran and the UAE, it has also rekindled Persian nationalism among Iranians in the virtual world. Facebook users changed their profile pictures to historic maps of the Persian Gulf. The Saudi king's and UAE emir's Facebook pages were spammed with references to the Persian Gulf; some went even further and posted anti-Arab comments on the pages. The irony in this recent show of virtual patriotism is that Iranians have been riled into a Persian nationalist frenzy by a government that has shown little sincere interest in Persian culture for the past 33 years.

The UAE claims that Abu Musa and two other Persian Gulf islands, the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, administered by Iran belong to them in part. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah ibn Zayed Al-Nahyan called Ahmadinejad's trip a "flagrant violation of the UAE sovereignty." Ali Akbar Salehi, his usually soft-spoken Iranian counterpart, responded that if other countries did not act with "insight and prudence" the situation could become "complicated." The strategically important islands lie along the shipping lanes to the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly one fifth of all globally traded oil passes.

The three islands were under British authority for most of the 20th century. When the British relinquished control in 1971, just before the UAE declared statehood, Iran under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi seized the islands. The UAE claims that, under an agreement with Britain, Abu Musa was to be administered jointly by Iran and Sharjah, which is now part of the UAE. The UAE has requested the dispute be settled at the International Court of Justice. Iran claims that all three of the islands have belonged to it since "antiquity" -- or at least since the Safavid King Shah Abbas I expelled the Portuguese from the Strait of Hormuz in 1622.

Some have argued that Iranian control of the islands was accepted when the Shah finally agreed to relinquish claim to Bahrain. However, Dr. Roham Alvandi of the London School of Economics and Political Science writes in "Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the Bahrain Question, 1968-1970" that "the Shah clearly hoped that such a quid pro quo could be achieved as part of a 'package deal' with the British...[but] such a deal was never struck in the course of the Bahrain negotiations."

Ahmadinejad announced he would turn Abu Musa, with its roughly 2,000 residents and an area of slightly less than five square miles, into a tourist destination for Iranians. Following the president's trip, an Iranian television crew produced a news report that highlighted the island's modern infrastructure, which has been financed by the Islamic Republic. The Mehr News Agency called Abu Musa "beloved" by Iranians, who as a result of "false claims" by the UAE have "shown their love for Iranian land." The Iranian Diplomacy website attributed the recent tensions to the "tipping of the balance of power in Iran's favor due to the developments of the region in the last decade." Further exacerbating those tensions, Sunday happened to be National Persian Gulf Day in Iran.

The championing of Iran's claim to the three islands has also reignited another regional dispute, concerning the name of the body of water that is commonly referred to as the Persian Gulf. Most Arab states prefer "the Gulf" and some "the Arabian Gulf" -- the U.S. Navy Style Guide directs American naval personnel to use the latter. Many have argued online that the name of the Persian Gulf is beyond the politics of the Islamic Republic and that its identity belongs to all Iranians. University of Tehran Professor Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam criticized some of the more ultra-patriotic comments in his blog, arguing that the quarrels over the islands and the name of the Persian Gulf offer Iranians "an excuse to express [their] historic spite and hatred against Arabs." He added that some of the harsher Arab responses have parallel motivations.

Largely overlooked is the fact that these nationalist gestures in the virtual world give Iranians the chance to experience a connection to a glorious ancient Persian past, a time before the encroachment of Arab marauders expedited the collapse of the Sassanian Empire. The leaders of the Islamic Republic have often exploited that history as a tool to garner domestic political support, while showing little but disrespect for it otherwise. After the Revolution, if it was not for the citizens of Shiraz who prevented Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali from bulldozing the ruins of ancient Persepolis, today this UNESCO World Heritage Site would not exist. Such was the contempt the Islamic Republic's founders had for pre-Muslim Iran. The president's idea that Abu Musa will become a tourist destination is laughable given that true Iranian tourist destinations such as those in Isfahan and Shiraz are today either incompetently managed or almost entirely neglected.

Recent statements from the Islamic Republic's leaders continue to demonstrate their attempt to bury the past. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Iranian scholars should stress the greatness of Iran's history since the introduction of Islam, as opposed to its pre-Islamic heritage. Friday Prayers leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who is appointed by the Supreme Leader, scolded those who have emphasized Iraniat, the study or school of Iranian thought. There are numerous examples of lesser-known clerics and government officials who have disparaged Iranian and Persian national history in a similar manner.

Another twist to the recent surge in Persian nationalism is that it has been brought on by the widely unpopular Ahmadinejad, who only three years ago held onto his office in an election that required massive security intervention to ensure his victory and suppress the subsequent protests. The president and his adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, sensing that the ruling clergy's policies have alienated large segments of the population, have attempted to generate popular support by emphasizing ancient Iranian history. Pandering to a warped sense of Persian nationalism, Ahmadinejad went so far as to tie a chafiyeh -- the scarf worn by Iranian soldiers during the war with Iraq -- around the neck of an actor portraying Cyrus the Great during the Cyrus Cylinder's 2010-11 visit to Tehran.

Whether or not Ahmadinejad and his team genuinely care about the barren Abu Musa or even Persian nationalism, the impetus for the domestic Iranian community to lean on patriotism when confronted with their Arab neighbors is all too clear. Most of the Arab economies around the Persian Gulf, with an abundance of natural resources and small populations, are growing at near double digit rates. The Iranian economy, grappling with severe international sanctions and gross domestic mismanagement, is hardly growing at all. Youth unemployment is high on both sides, but unlike Iran, most of the Arab states have been able to keep their citizens financially content with payouts. Arab cities like Dubai have become destinations for international commerce even as Iran's government attempts to cut its citizens off from the rest of the world by haplessly stumbling toward a "Halal Intranet." In light of these stark contrasts, it is understandable that some would choose to indulge in a patriotic stupor that hearkens back to a sense of ancient greatness.

The diaspora is not immune to these emotions either. Iran has experienced one of the largest brain drains in the world over the past three decades; many of its dissidents, journalists, and intellectuals are now scattered across the continents. What keeps them most firmly bound to a shared identity is the notion of an ancient glorious Persia, with which they will -- it is imagined -- fully reunite once they return.

Unfortunately, and predictably, in the midst of the recent outburst of nationalist bravado, no one has yet questioned why Ahmadinejad would visit Abu Musa only a few weeks before sensitive negotiations with the P5+1 group over Iran's nuclear program are about to take place. Or why the Iranian president would feel the need to provoke a neighboring country whose commercial ties with the Islamic Republic have been crucial to the struggling Iranian economy.

Despite the lack of tangible gains in a war of names over a body of water and the ownership rights to three indefensible islands with no natural resources, Iranians continue to be heavily motivated by Persian nationalism. Iran's leaders have always been keen to use these sensibilities to their advantage; what prompted the president at this crucial juncture and what he expects to gain are the questions that people should be asking.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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