Secret back-channel diplomacy between the United States and Iran, that has been ongoing since June of this year, has covered a broader range of issues than the nuclear dispute. According to one senior U.S. intelligence source involved in the back-channel efforts, the recent decision by Iran to withdraw 10 SU-25 fighter planes from the disputed island of Abu Musa near the Straits of Hormuz is one direct indication of the broader character of the US-Iran talks. Those talks have been taking place in Oman and in Western Europe.
Three islands near the Straits of Hormuz—Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs and Lesser Tunbs—are claimed by both Iran and the United Arab Emirates. The dispute dates back to 1971, when the UAE was first established and when the Shah of Iran relinquished Iranian claims over the territory of Bahrain. At the time, the Shah asserted that the Iranian takeover of the three critically located islands was part of a larger quid pro quo.
The fighter planes deployed on Abu Musa were under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force (IRGAF). The issue of the island dispute was one of a number of broader topics taken up by American and Iranian negotiators during the months of secret talks, according to the American source. “I am surprised that no one has publicly connected the dots between the bilateral talks and the island breakthrough,” the source noted. If the P5+1 talks succeed and a final status agreement is reached, then the relationship between Iran and all of the Gulf Arab states will be impacted in economic, political and military terms. This could also be reflected in the Syria conflict with reports such as one from Agence France Press (AFP) on Dec. 12 that both Iran and Saudi Arabia will be invited to participate in the scheduled Jan. 22, 2014 Geneva II talks.
Almost immediately after the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed, negotiations began over the three disputed islands. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a visit to Kuwait, offered to negotiate with the UAE. At the start of December, the Foreign Minister of the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nayhan made an historic visit to Tehran, which was followed immediately by a visit to Abu Dabi by Zarif, who met with President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Nayhan. Next, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asked Sheikh Khalifa to come to Tehran. The withdrawal of the SU-25s took place during this diplomatic back-and-forth.
During his own visit to the UAE recently, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his hopes for a normalization of relations between Iran and the UAE, noting that, at the peak, prior to the 2007 and 2012 sanctions against Iran, bilateral trade between Iran and the UAE had reached $23 billion. This year, that bilateral trade will be $4 billion.