China has upset its long-term ally Iran over a joint statement with the United Arab Emirates that touches on a contested issue between the two governments.

After Chinese leader Xi Jinping wrapped up his visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), China and the UAE released a joint statement on December 9. In this, Beijing mentioned the three islands in the Persian Gulf that both Iran and the UAE are having territorial disputes over.

The section causing controversy reads, “The leaders affirmed their support for all peaceful efforts, including the initiative and endeavors of the United Arab Emirates to reach a peaceful solution to the issue of the three islands; Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, through bilateral negotiations in accordance with the rules of international law, and to resolve this issue in accordance with international legitimacy.”

Iran responded fiercely to these remarks. As Anadolu Agency reported, it summoned the Chinese ambassador to Tehran as soon as December 10, one day after the statement, to protest against Beijing’s statement.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry reasserted that the islands belong to it and “have never and will never be subject to negotiations with any country.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted on the same day, “We firmly insist on the need for respecting Iran’s territorial integrity.”

Former Iranian diplomat Abdolreza Faraji Rad warned that China’s relationship with Iran could go sour quickly in less than a decade if it continues to go against Iran’s interests.

He told news outlet Entekhab, “It appears that China has given up its 25-year cooperation deal with Iran.”

The conflict over the islands between Iran and the UAE began after the UAE gained independence from the British in 1971, long before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the islands at some points were ruled by Arab tribes and the Persian Empire (now Iran) throughout history. But over the past five decades, they have been under the control of the Iranian government.

Iranian analyst Ali Hossein Ghazizade said the three islands in the Persian Gulf had been the focus of Iran’s most significant security challenges in recent years.

Ghazizade admonished, “The Chinese, as the Islamic Republic’s strategic allies did not stand by Iran. Do people still believe that Iran’s territorial integrity will be preserved with such allies?”
Iran and China forged strong regional allies for years amid rising tensions with the U.S. Last year, both signed a 25-year cooperation agreement. However, little detail related to the deal has been publicized to date.

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