AFP: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to arrive in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday on the first visit by an Iranian head of state to the close US Gulf ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. TEHRAN, May 11, 2007 (AFP) – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to arrive in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday on the first visit by an Iranian head of state to the close US Gulf ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ahmadinejad is due in Abu Dhabi for his two-day trip just days after a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney that highlighted the UAE’s close relations with Iran’s arch enemy the United States.
Abu Dhabi’s ties with Washington have not prevented generally robust relations with Tehran although a shadow is cast by a territorial dispute over the tiny but strategically important islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa that bestride the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz from the Gulf.
The row over the islands, annexed by Iran’s pro-Western Shah in 1971 as Britain ended its longstanding protectorate over what is now the UAE, has long been a sore point in relations between the two countries.
The UAE, backed by Saudi Arabia and the other four pro-Western Gulf states, has repeatedly called for direct talks to resolve the dispute or its referral to international arbitration.
But Iran insists it has full sovereignty over the islands and rejects any question of negotiations.
Despite the row, the two countries have wide-ranging commercial links, and the UAE is by far Iran’s largest trading partner. The emirate of Dubai in particular serves as an outlet for Tehran’s business with the outside world.
This makes the UAE an essential partner for Iran at a time when it is subjected to UN and more wide-ranging US sanctions, and Washington is seeking to isolate Tehran over its controversial nuclear programme.
In a sign of the importance Tehran attaches to relations, last year it appointed one of its highest profile diplomats, the former foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, as its ambassador in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE is Iran’s biggest trading partner and Iranian non-oil imports from the UAE amounted to 7.67 billion dollars in the Iranian year to May 2006, some 20 percent of its total.
At least 400,000 of the UAE’s 4.1 million residents are Iranian, according to the Iranian consulate in Dubai.
In a goodwill gesture to Iran, the UAE said on Wednesday it was releasing 12 Iranian divers arrested off Abu Musa earlier this month.
Another, less public, bone of contention is the presence of a US liaison office in Dubai charged with making contact with Iranians in the absence of diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran.
Washington’s decision to set up the office prompted a public warning from Tehran to Abu Dhabi, which in turn expressed dismay that Tehran brought up the issue in public.
Ahmadinejad, who is expected to visit Oman on Saturday before travelling on to the UAE, paid a landmark visit to Saudi Arabia two months ago in a bid to bolster relations with the Gulf Arab economic powerhouse.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan said in March that the UAE would never allow its territory to be used for “hostile activities” against Iran.
At the same time, the pro-Western Gulf states have expressed concern about the potential environmental consequences of any mishap at the nuclear power plant under construction in Iran’s Gulf port of Bushehr, although they have also set out plans for a joint nuclear programme of their own.