TEHRAN - The head of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards on Thursday made a pointed visit to three islands in the Gulf whose ownership is fiercely disputed by Tehran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Guards Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, accompanied by his naval commander, Ali Fadavi, went to the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb to deliver a speech stressing they were Iran's "strategic and sensitive territory," the Guards' official news website said.
Jafari expressed satisfaction with the condition of Iranian combat units stationed on Abu Musa, it said. He also offered a message of "friendship" to neighbouring Arab countries on the Gulf.
The visit was likely to be viewed as incendiary by the UAE, which claims the islands under the terms of a 1971 agreement signed when Britain ended its colonial-era reign over that part of the Gulf.
But Iran rejects any UAE claim to the islands, saying they have always been part of its territory and that it never renounced its ownership.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered the fury of the UAE and its allied Arab monarchies when he visited the islands in April to reinforce Tehran's position.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council called Ahmadinejad's trip "a flagrant violation of the sovereignty of the United Arab Emirates over its three islands."
Iran's military has vowed to defend the islands. It maintains a permanent military base and airfield on Abu Musa, the biggest of the three and the only one to be inhabited.
The islands are at a strategic location in the oil-rich Gulf, permitting control over access to the waterway.
The UAE has won support from the United States in the dispute, with Washington urging Iran to agree to the UAE's demand that the issue be resolved through direct negotiations.
The United States this month sent an unspecified number of its highly sophisticated F-22 Raptor fighter jets to the UAE, though it presented the deployment as "routine".
Last December, the United States announced a $3.48 billion arms deal with the UAE that the Pentagon said included two sophisticated missile defence batteries, 96 missiles, two radars, spare parts and training.