World and Nation

Dispute over tiny island in Persian Gulf unites Iran

TEHRAN — For Iranians, whose country’s borders have shrunk in the past 200 years after wars and unfavorable deals by corrupt shahs, territorial issues are a delicate matter. So a renewed claim by the United Arab Emirates to the tiny island of Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf has touched a raw nerve.

But many here say that may just be the point.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his reactionary agenda tend to be unpopular among the urban middle classes, but he is enjoying a rare surge of support even in those inhospitable quarters in the growing dispute with Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors — one that he touched off by making a surprise visit to the island last month, a first by an Iranian president.

Other Iranian politicians have rushed to embrace the controversy, aware of how it is playing at home.

A parliamentary delegation made a high-profile visit to the island Sunday to observe Iran’s National Day of the Persian Gulf, a normally low-key event, which seems bound to further inflame the issue. Other legislators have called for the establishment of a Persian Gulf province, and want the Tehran street that the United Arab Emirates Embassy is on renamed Abu Musa.

For many Iranians, the dispute over Abu Musa, a 4-square-mile spit of sand with about 2,000 inhabitants and surrounded by pristine blue waters, arouses strong nationalistic feelings at a time of general hopelessness over the devastating impact of a grinding economy, foreign sanctions and a feeling of unprecedented isolation. To that extent, it mirrors Iran’s nuclear program, which has also whipped up nationalistic emotions that Ahmadinejad has used to build support for the government.

“We Iranians continuously fight and disagree like a husband and wife during a nasty divorce,” Somaye Allahdad, 35, a Tehran homemaker who does not always agree with Ahmadinejad’s policies, said over a family lunch of traditional lamb kebab and sabzi, a sort of herbal stew. “But when someone tries to take away our child, we team up and face the threat.”

Ahmadinejad’s visit to Abu Musa, where he spoke to an audience of sun-tanned Iranian fishermen, prompted angry reactions from Arab states on the western shore of the Persian Gulf, which rejected his assertion that the island is occupied by Iran. That, too, may have been part of the plan, some Iranians believe.