Iran/UAEUAE cancels soccer match amid mounting tension with Iran

Increas­ing­ly strained rela­tions between Iran and oil-rich Arab Gulf states spilled on to the soc­cer pitch this week­end with the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates can­celling a friend­ly match against the Islam­ic repub­lic and recall­ing its ambas­sador in Tehran.

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The move against the back­drop of a war of words between Iran and Qatar and a region­al bat­tle for influ­ence with Sau­di Ara­bia was in protest against a con­tro­ver­sial vis­it by Iran­ian pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad to two dis­put­ed islands in the Gulf 60 kilo­me­tres off the UAE coast, Greater and Less­er Tunbs. Iran occu­pied the two poten­tial­ly oil-rich islands as well as a third one, Abu Musa, locat­ed near key ship­ping routes at the entrance to the Strait of Hor­muz in 1971 on the eve of the for­ma­tion of the UAE as an inde­pen­dent state. The vis­it was part of tour by Mr. Ahmadine­jad of the Iran­ian Gulf coast. Iran has threat­ened to close the Strait of Hor­muz if Iran or the Unit­ed States were to attack its nuclear facilities. 

The UAE for­eign min­is­ter Sheikh Abdul­lah bin Zayed Al Nahayan denounced the vis­it as a “fla­grant vio­la­tion of the UAE’s sov­er­eign­ty’ ”. His min­istry said the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) that groups Sau­di Ara­bia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman would meet on Tues­day, the day the match was sched­uled to be played, to dis­cuss the Iran­ian president’s vis­it. The UAE imme­di­ate­ly after can­celling the soc­cer match with­drew its ambas­sador from Teheran. 

Iran­ian soc­cer offi­cials said they would file a protest against the can­cel­la­tion of the match that with world gov­ern­ing soc­cer body FIIFA. They not­ed that Nige­ria was ordered to pay $300,000 to the Iran­ian foot­ball fed­er­a­tion after can­celling in 2010 a friend­ly against the Islam­ic repub­lic on polit­i­cal grounds. 

It is not imme­di­ate­ly clear why Mr. Ahmadine­jad chose to pro­voke the UAE at a moment that Iran is engaged in six-par­ty talks about its nuclear pro­gram in a bid to weak­en inter­na­tion­al sanc­tions and reduce the risk of an Israeli and/or US mil­i­tary strike. A sec­ond round of the talks which resumed in Istan­bul this week­end for the first time in more than a year is sched­uled for May 23 in Baghdad. 

The UAE last year emerged in remarks made by its ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States, Yousef al-Otai­ba, as the first Gulf state to pub­licly endorse mil­i­tary force to pre­vent Iran from becom­ing a nuclear pow­er, should peace­ful efforts to resolve the stand­off over Tehran’s nuclear pro­gram fail. The UAE at the time also restrict­ed Iran’s use of Dubai to imports goods sanc­tioned by the Unit­ed Nations and the Unit­ed States. The ambassador’s remarks reflect­ed the Emi­rates’ mount­ing frus­tra­tion with Iran’s refusal to resolve the dis­pute over the islands. 

Mr. Otai­ba described a nuclear-armed Iran as the fore­most threat to the UAE, and one that need­ed to be neu­tral­ized at what­ev­er cost. His remarks sug­gest­ed that in case of mil­i­tary action, the UAE would pre­fer a US to an Israeli strike because that was less like­ly to fuel pop­u­lar anger, par­tic­u­lar­ly among Shi­ites, at a time of wide­spread civ­il unrest in the Mid­dle East and North AFRICA 

Mr. Otai­ba described the UAE as the coun­try most threat­ened by Iran. Con­trast­ing the threat against the UAE with the dan­ger a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the US, Mr. Otai­ba said that a nuclear Iran would “threat­en the peace process, it will threat­en bal­ance of pow­er, it will threat­en every­thing else, but it will not threat­en you.… Our mil­i­tary … wakes up, dreams, breathes, eats, sleeps the Iran­ian threat. It’s the only con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary threat our mil­i­tary plans for, trains for, equips for.… There’s no coun­try in the region that is a threat to the UAE [besides] Iran.” 

Satel­lite imagery last year revealed Iran­ian instal­la­tions on Abu Musa that includ­ed three mis­sile launch pads, an elab­o­rate under­ground mar­ket, and a sports field with the words “Per­sian Gulf” embla­zoned on it — a provoca­tive reminder of Iran’s hege­mon­ic view of a region the Gulf states describe as the Arab Gulf. UAE For­eign Min­is­ter Sheikh Zayed last year stopped short of com­par­ing Iran’s occu­pa­tion of the islands to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ry. “Iran refus­es to allow us to send teach­ers, doc­tors and nurs­es. I am not com­par­ing Iran to Israel, but Iran should be more care­ful than oth­ers,” Sheikh Zayed said. 

The UAE has worked to ensure that its secu­ri­ty is close­ly linked to U.S. and Euro­pean secu­ri­ty inter­ests. French Pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy last year inau­gu­rat­ed in Abu Dhabi France’s first mil­i­tary base in the region. The base, which com­pris­es three sites on the banks of the Strait of Hor­muz, hous­es a naval and air base as well as a train­ing camp, and is home to 500 French troops. Along­side oth­er small­er Gulf states, the UAE has fur­ther agreed to the deploy­ment of U.S. anti-mis­sile bat­ter­ies on its ter­ri­to­ry. The UAE and Sau­di Ara­bia are expect­ed to spend up to $100 bil­lion on arms pro­cure­ment in the next five years. 

With his remarks, Mr. Otai­ba sig­nalled fur­ther that the UAE was will­ing to pay a price for stop­ping Iran­ian nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion, and could afford to do so now that Abu Dhabi had cement­ed its pre­dom­i­nance among the UAE emi­rates fol­low­ing the finan­cial cri­sis in Dubai. 

“There will be back­lash, and there will be prob­lems with peo­ple protest­ing and riot­ing and [being] very unhap­py that there is an out­side force attack­ing a Mus­lim coun­try,” Mr. Otai­ba said. “That is going to hap­pen no mat­ter what.” 

But he added, “If you are ask­ing me, ‘Am I will­ing to live with that ver­sus liv­ing with a nuclear Iran,’ my answer is still the same: We can­not live with a nuclear Iran.” 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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