BY Phillip Walter Wellman | Dubai – Gulf Arab states are beginning two days of joint military exercises, as fears of an armed conflict with Iran continue to grow.
The drills, dubbed “Islands of Loyalty,” come amid an escalating territorial dispute between the United Arab Emirates and Iran over three strategic islands in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier this month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited one of the islands, Abu Musa, sparking a war of words between Abu Dhabi and Tehran.
The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, said his nation was “fed up” with the Iranians’ “occupation” of the land.
Iran’s FARS news agency on Saturday provided one of the starkest warnings yet the dispute could result in war, quoting an unnamed military official as saying, “serious damage to the United Arab Emirates would be the first outcome.”
Despite the strong rhetoric analyst David Roberts, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in Qatar, says both countries would prefer to avoid a serious confrontation.
“It is certainly for show, but that is absolutely not to ignore the potential prospect that something could accidentally spark off here,” Roberts. “If you put all of these forces in a small proximity in a slightly fevered atmosphere, anything could happen.”
Research Director Theodore Karasic, of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, agrees.
“It only takes one little accident or incident to set off a chain of events that could ultimately lead to some kind of military confrontation and it is possible that the islands’ issue could do that,” say Karasic.
All three of the disputed islands are controlled by Iran and lie near the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies are shipped.
Tehran has threatened to close the Strait in response to sanctions targeting its nuclear program and would likely use troops stationed on Abu Musa to do so.
Political risks analyst Andrew Bond, of the Institute of Gulf Affairs in Washington D. C., says many countries, including the United States, are concerned the islands confrontation could have a future impact on global oil supplies.
“There are some people in the [U.S.] administration who are nervous right now with what is going on,” said Bond.
On Sunday, Iran’s Majlis (legislature) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee reportedly held a meeting on Abu Musa to coincide with the Arab military drills.
The drills are being carried out by the Peninsula Shield Force, the joint army of the Gulf Arab states, to test the ability of ground, air and naval troops to carry out missions along coasts and on islands in territorial waters.
Peninsula Shield soldiers were used to quell Bahrain’s anti-government uprising last year.
The United Arab Emirates says it is willing to take the islands dispute to international arbitration if a compromise cannot be reached diplomatically. Iran says its ownership if the islands is not negotiable.