Cyrus eyeballs the locust-eaters
Nationalist feeling on both sides of the Gulf is as prickly as ever
May 5th 2012 | from the print edition
THE Persians have enjoyed being nasty about their Arab neighbours at least since the seventh century, when their land was invaded by Arab armies. From satirical verses about locust-eaters out of the parched wastes of Araby to periodic efforts to purify the Persian language of Arabic accretions, assertions of cultural superiority have masked a deep historical resentment.
Now a row over three spots in the middle of the Persian Gulf (which Arabs, naturally, prefer to call the Arabian Gulf) has provoked fresh transports of emotionon both sides. A recent trip by Irans president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the tiny island of Abu Musa, about 75km (47 miles) from Irans south coast, prompted the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to restate in no uncertain terms its own claims to the island and to two barely inhabited chunks of rock nearby.
Iranian nationalists responded joyfully. Anti-Arab gags dominated comedy programmes on state radio, while astonishment was expressed in parliament and in the newspapers at the cheek of the little sheikhs to the south, their confected country barely four decades old, daring to address the heirs of Cyrus the Great. If the people of Irans southernmost province all blew at once across the Gulf, one wag remarked, the wind would carry the Emirates away.
The war of words may well have been deliberately engineered by Mr Ahmadinejad, narked at being sidelined in Irans latest nuclear negotiations with the West (see article). But the presidents attention-seeking is not risk-free. Abu Musa occupies a commanding position near the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the worlds oil passes under the protective eye of the American navy. Iran has threatened to block the strait in the event of a Western attack on its nuclear facilities.
Both parties claim that the islands have been part, since antiquity, of their cultural and political sphere. Irans last shah seized them in 1971, as Britain abandoned its former possessions in the Gulf and the UAE was being set up. The Iranians have since strengthened their grip on the islands, settling mainlanders and building military defences, though Mr Ahmadinejad is the first head of government actually to visit any of them.
Barring a rash move on either side, Mr Ahmadinejads jaunt will probably not change very much. The Emiratis, backed by their Arab brethren, particularly the Saudis, have long pressed for negotiations over the islands sovereignty or for referral to the International Court at The Hague. The Iranians offer only talks aimed at resolving misunderstandings.