Friday, February 20, 2009

Bahrain halts gas talks with Iran over insult

MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain's foreign minister on Thursday blasted Iran for an Iranian official's remarks perceived as a threat to Bahraini sovereignty — a stinging rebuke a day after the tiny Gulf Arab kingdom halted talks on a key natural gas imports deal with Tehran.
Iranian officials, meanwhile, looked to soothe the rift sparked after former Iranian parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Noori — a prominent cleric close to Iran's supreme leader — was quoted by Arab media last week as saying that Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran until 1970.
Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said the remark was an "infringement of sovereignty" and a "distortion of historical fact."
"We are hurt by ... Iranian statements," he added. "These remarks must be silenced."
Bahrain fears Iran still holds its longtime claims to the island, ruled by a Sunni elite but with a poor Shiite majority that has close ties to the Shiite Iran.
Seeking to distance official Tehran from the statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi said this week that Iran respects Bahrain's independence and has "no territorial claims against this country," according to the Iranian ministry Web site.
Saudi Arabia was also angered over the controversial remark. Saudi official press agency, SPA, quoted on Thursday an unnamed official as saying Riyadh is following "with strong indignation ... allegations and claims to the land of brotherly kingdom of Bahrain."
The Sunni powerhouse "totally rejects such statements and expresses deep regret they were issued by circles connected to the Iranian leadership," the report said.
Iran ruled Bahrain for a period in the 17th century and some hardline Iranians still insist today it belongs to Iran. The island became an independent Arab nation after a 1970 referendum that ended the British protectorate.
Bahrain-Iranian relations were strained after the 1979 Iranian revolution but began to thaw after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in 2007, when the two signed a memorandum of understanding on the gas deal. Iran was to provide Bahrain with one million cubic feet per day of natural gas and details were expected to be finalized soon.
Khalid confirmed Thursday that negotiations have stopped, and reiterated demands for "full respect of Bahrain's sovereignty." But it wasn't clear what exactly Manama expected from Tehran to resume the talks.
Ap Associated Press