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Island Dispute Inflames Russia-Iran Tensions

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Alarms are sounding over a contentious territorial dispute that threatens to rupture the deepening Russia-Iran strategic alliance. 

Moscow’s brazen decision to repeatedly contest Iranian sovereignty over three Persian Gulf islands has provoked a barrage of furious protests from Tehran. 

The surprising discord jeopardizes years of growing military, energy, and economic partnership between the two nations. Yet an indignant Iran remains unflinching, willing to sacrifice that alignment in defense of its territorial integrity and pride. 

Russia’s reckless disregard for Iranian sensitivities around the islands, in a bid to appease the UAE, is backfiring badly. The disputed territory has become a flashpoint, inflaming nationalist passions in Iran. 

Unless Moscow backs down, the spiraling tensions risk irreparable damage to the relationship. Blind to the fallout, Russia may have disastrously misjudged how volatile the issue could become. 

With Iran’s warnings growing increasingly strident, the precarious alliance hangs by a thread as the island row intensifies.

Russia’s contentious stance on a territorial dispute in the Persian Gulf has emerged as an unexpected irritant in its otherwise increasingly warm relations with Iran.

Moscow’s vocal support for the United Arab Emirates’ sovereignty claims over three islands governed by Iran has drawn sharp protests from Tehran. The islands – Abu Musa along with Greater and Lesser Tunb – have been under Iranian control since 1971. However, the UAE insists they rightfully belong to it.

Russia has backed the UAE position in joint statements, triggering accusations of interference in Iran’s internal affairs and warnings that such actions threaten otherwise positive Russia-Iran ties. Iran resolutely rejects any negotiations over the islands, insisting its sovereignty is non-negotiable.

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The dispute highlights how territorial integrity remains a sensitive issue for Iran, even with allies. The angry Iranian response reveals an unwillingness to make concessions despite its strategic partnership with Russia.

Iran moved to reclaim the three Gulf islands from the British Empire in November 1971, just before the UAE gained independence. The Shah sent Iranian naval forces to occupy Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, which the UK had controlled since the early 19th century.

Tehran claimed the islands historically belonged to Iran, citing documents and records. With British forces departing, Iran asserted control over the islands it viewed as rightfully Iranian territory.

The UAE has disputed Iran’s sovereignty over the islands since its formation. As Arab states of the Gulf united into a federation, the UAE staked claim to the islands on the grounds that Britain ceded them to individual emirates before it withdrew.

Iran has retained forces on the islands and undertaken efforts to develop and populate them to consolidate its hold. 

Nonetheless, the UAE has actively contested Iran’s claims. The dispute has simmered for decades, occasionally resurfacing as a thorn in Iran-UAE ties. In recent years, the UAE has increasingly sought to internationalize the issue by lobbying for global support.

Significantly, it has gained backing from Russia and China, two of Iran’s closest international partners. Beijing and Moscow’s increasing tilt toward the UAE position has become a major irritant for Tehran.

In December 2022, China signed a joint statement with Arab states at the China-Arab Cooperation Forum expressing support for the UAE’s sovereignty and call for peaceful resolution over the islands. Iran furiously summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest what it termed “interference” in Iranian affairs.

However, Russia’s vocal endorsement of the UAE stance has drawn even sharper condemnation from Iran. Moscow has issued near-identical statements backing the UAE claims alongside Arab nations at successive Russian-Arab Cooperation Forums.

The latest incident came at the 2023 forum held in Morocco this week. The joint declaration by Russia and Arab states again pressed for international arbitration or negotiations to settle the dispute as per the UAE’s wishes.

Iran quickly reacted by summoning the Russian ambassador to Tehran to lodge a “strong protest” against the statement. The foreign ministry insisted the islands are Iranian territory and no outside claim is admissible.

Russia’s actions have confounded Tehran given the two nations’ increasingly aligned policies in recent years. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran has emerged as a key diplomatic and economic partner.

Tehran has supplied advanced drones to boost Russia’s military capacity and helped Moscow circumvent Western sanctions. The two nations are negotiating a major strategic partnership pact with expanded military, energy and infrastructure cooperation.

However, Russian support for the UAE claims seems at odds with this growing strategic convergence. It has stoked concerns that Moscow is still willing to undercut Iranian interests when it deems fit.

Iranian officials and lawmakers have warned Russia that its surprising stance risks damaging burgeoning ties. They called out Moscow for questioning Iranian sovereignty while benefiting from Tehran’s backing on Ukraine.

After the Morocco summit statement, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reproached his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the phone. He demanded respect for Iran’s territorial integrity, insisting it was non-negotiable.

Lavrov responded that Russia has always respected Iran’s sovereignty and its official policy was unchanged. But the assurances only temporarily mollified Iran, as Moscow has already issued similar pledges in the past.

Tehran remains deeply skeptical about Russian motives. Lawmakers accused Moscow of deliberately seeking to isolate Iran and keep it dependent on ties with Russia alone.

They argued Russia prefers a weakened Iran without other international partners. Some even suggested Iran reciprocate by questioning Russian sovereignty claims, like urging negotiations with Japan over disputed islands.

The angry rhetoric reveals the depth of Iran’s displeasure over Russian interference in its internal affairs. It shows Tehran will aggressively defend its territorial claims even at the risk of straining ties with allies.

Nonetheless, Russia is unlikely to be deterred given the leverages it gains from the dispute. Supporting the UAE wins Moscow favor and influence with Arab Gulf states. It also provides strategic leverage to keep Iran somewhat beholden to Russia.

Moreover, tacitly challenging Iran’s hold over the islands allows Russia to strengthen its own naval power projection in the sensitive Strait of Hormuz. Russia seeks to expand its military footprint and influence across the region.

Thus, realpolitik interests dictate that Moscow will continue backing the UAE position regardless of Iranian protests. At most it can provide diplomatic reassurances and hope Tehran’s ire blows over eventually.

For Iran, acquiescence to any negotiations over the islands is out of the question. Despite growing international pressure, it refuses to budge on its sovereignty claims. The uncompromising stance speaks to the wider context.

Territorial integrity has become a prime national security issue as Iran faces ethnic separatist movements and cross-border attacks. Preserving sovereignty is now an existential priority for the regime. Even a small territorial concession could have cascading domestic repercussions.

The island dispute also touches on Iran’s national pride and sense of history. For the public, the islands are markers of national identity and Iran’s historical prominence in the Gulf before British imperialism. Relinquishing them would be a psychological blow and violation of Iranian identity.

Moreover, the islands hold strategic value in securing Iran’s southern maritime flank and the vital Strait of Hormuz. Their location enables power projection across the Persian Gulf and deters threats to Iran’s energy exports transiting the strait.

Considering the multifaceted sensitivities, Iran cannot entertain compromises despite external lobbying. Its uncompromising posture seeks to deter further internationalization of the dispute.

Nonetheless, growing great power meddling at the behest of the UAE will increase tensions. Iran may pursue asymmetric responses like ramping up its own presence on the islands to signal resolve. More threatening Iranian rhetoric toward the UAE can also be expected.

But Russia’s role will remain most concerning, given its expanding military footprint in Iran’s backyard. Iran will have little choice but to compartmentalize the issue for now to sustain wider strategic ties with Moscow.

Yet resentment will persist, and risks undermining the relationship over time. A Russian naval base planned in Sudan has already stoked Iranian worries about growing influence in the region. Backing the UAE’s claims compounds such threat perceptions.

The island dispute reveals stark geopolitical realities for Iran. Despite deepening alignments, Russia remains an expedient actor willing to check Iranian influence to suit its interests. Even Chinese meddling highlights Iran’s strategic isolation and vulnerability.

Caught between competing great power machinations, Iran will have to balance asserting its sovereignty against dependence on dubious allies. For now it has limited options but to play a shrewd diplomatic game while standing firm on its territorial red lines. But the pressures will only grow, and Iran’s room for maneuver remains fraught with risk.

The island controversy demonstrates that for all the rhetoric of brotherly ties, Iran’s allies will readily undermine its core national interests where advantageous. How Tehran navigates its principles with geopolitical necessities will profoundly impact regional stability going forward.

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