Cynicism is generally a pretty safe default posture to adopt when it comes to Middle Eastern diplomacy, but today’s headlines bring news of some significant progress being made on small but difficult international issues in the region.
Isabel Kershner of the New York Times reports that “In a rare display of regional cooperation, representatives of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement on Monday to build a Red Sea-Dead Sea water project that is meant to benefit all three parties.”
The deal involves the construction of a desalination plant in Southern Jordan that converts Red Sea water to fresh water to be shared between Jordan and Southern Israel. Both sides will get 8 billion to 13 billion gallons a year.
Israel also agreed to sell more water to the Palestinian Authority at preferential prices. The “reject” water left behind in the desalination process would be pumped into the rapidly disappearing Dead Sea.
Meanwhile, Awad Mustafa of Defense News reports that “Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are close to reaching a deal on returning three Iranian-occupied islands in the Arabian Gulf to the UAE.” (That’s the body of water generally known outside the Arab world as the Persian Gulf.)
The dispute over Abu Musa island, home to about 2,000 people, and two uninhabited islands nearby, dates back to 1971 when the shah of Iran sent troops to occupy them over the objections of the sheikhdom of Sharjah—now part of the UAE. The UAE maintains sovereignty, but Iran has a military base on the island and has been gradually increasing its presence. Former President Mahmoud Ammadinejad made a controversial visit to the island last year claiming to possess documents proving that “the Persian Gulf is Persian.” The provocative move led the UAE to pull its ambassador from Tehran.
As you might suspect, this isn’t a purely historical spat. The islands are located near the Mubarek oil field as well as being right in the middle of the Strait of Hormuz—a critically important shipping lane for the world’s energy supply. It hasn’t gotten as much attention as certain other island disputes happening in the world today, but its location alone makes it worth keeping an eye on.
Following recent visits by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan to Tehran and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Abu Dhabi, the two sides are now apparently on the verge of a “workable agreement for the transfer of the islands to the UAE while Iran retains the seabed rights.”
Unfortunately the outlook for breakthroughs at either next month’s Syria talks in Geneva or the Israeli-Palestinian talks being pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t appear quite as positive. But it’s sometimes worth keeping in mind that stalemate on high-level issues can distract from progress being made on small but very real issues.