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(photo credit: AP)
The president of the United Arab Emirates forbade the US military from using bases in his country to attack or spy on Iran as mammoth US Navy maneuvers in the Gulf entered their second day.
Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who leads this key US ally, said Tuesday that the Emirates had assured Iran that it was not siding with Washington in its dispute over Teheran's nuclear program.
Leaders of Arab nations around the Gulf have grown increasingly uneasy with the tough US stance toward Iran, believing any outbreak of war would bring Iranian retaliation on their own soil, which lies in easy reach of Iranian missiles.
On Wednesday, the US Navy continued its largest show of force in the Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with 15 ships, 125 aircraft and 13,000 sailors taking part in an exercise that veered within a few dozen miles of Iran's coast.
The Emirates "refuses to use its territorial lands, air or waters for aggression against any other country, let alone a neighboring Muslim country with which we maintain historic and economic ties," Sheik Khalifa said in a statement carried on Emirates news agency WAM.
"We have assured the brothers in Iran ... that we are not a party in its dispute with the United States, that we will not allow any force to use our territories for military, security and espionage activities against Iran," Sheik Khalifa said.
The statement could prevent the US Air Force from flying intelligence missions over Iran with its squadron of U-2 and Global Hawk spy planes based at al-Dhafra Air Base near the Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.
The US Air Force has not altered its air operations in response to Sheik Khalifa's statement, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Pierson, based in the neighboring Gulf state of Qatar.
"Our air operations continue as before," Pierson said. He declined to say whether U-2s were flying missions over Iran, but said the US Air Force only operates in international airspace or over countries that have granted permission.
The US Air Force also runs air-to-air refueling missions from the base and is engaged in training Emirates air force pilots on F-16 fighters recently purchased from the United States.
Sheik Khalifa also asked Iran to "be flexible and realistic and to respect international demands" to halt uranium enrichment, while cautioning the United States to use diplomatic means, not military action to solve the dispute.
Earlier this month, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani issued a similar message, saying Qatar wouldn't permit an attack on Iran to be launched from its soil.
Qatar is home to the enormous al-Udeid air base, from where US Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary North commands all American air operations over the Mideast.
The United States maintains nearly 40,000 troops on bases in allied Arab countries that face Iran across the Persian Gulf, including about 25,000 in Kuwait, 6,500 in Qatar, 3,000 in Bahrain, 1,300 in the United Arab Emirates and a few hundred in Oman and Saudi Arabia, according to figures from the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
Iran has full diplomatic ties with the Emirates and most Gulf countries, with booming trade and tourism links.
As a result, Gulf countries are doing their best to avoid being linked to any military confrontation between Iran and the US, said Mustafa Alani, a military analyst at the Gulf Research Center.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, the loose alliance of six Gulf Arab states, has also called on its members not to offer any support to any US action on Iran, Alani said.
"This kind of statement is timely now, to tell the US they don't want to be a part of it," Alani said. "The Gulf states don't want to be sandwiched in a conflict between the US and Iran. America won't ask their permission to attack. They're going to be the victims in this."
In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown said the US Gulf maneuvers were defensive in nature, aimed at keeping open the sea lanes that carry a two-fifths of the world's oil shipments.
"We're not looking for any kind of confrontation with Iran," Brown said. "The purpose of the exercise is to ensure that no one miscalculates about our commitment to security and stability in the Gulf."
For its part, Iran insisted the maneuvers were not even taking place.
"American forces have not launched any maneuver in the recent days," Iran's joint armed forces headquarters said in a statement. "This has been part of the enemy's psychological operation."