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Tensions High on Anniversary of Iran-UAE Islands Row

An ongoing territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three strategic islands in the Persian Gulf is nearing the four-decade mark with both sides becoming increasingly vocal on the issue.

Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb had been under British control when Iran seized the islands on November 30, 1971.

The military invasion, which reportedly left six people dead, took place just hours before the United Arab Emirates officially became a country, and it was not until 1980 that Abu Dhabi took the island dispute to the United Nations.

Fast-forward 30 years and the situation is more or less the same.

Speaking at the 65th U.N. General Assembly in September, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan demanded the return of the disputed territories and said Iran's occupation would remain illegal no matter how long it lasts.

The islands have been historically important for two reasons: oil reserves and their proximity to the Straight of Hormuz, through which roughly one-fifth of the world's oil supplies are shipped on a daily basis.

According to the director of security at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, Mustafa Alani, Iran has been building up a military presence on the islands and will use troops stationed there in an attempt to block the Straight if Tehran is attacked over its controversial nuclear program. This would have a major impact on global oil markets.

"We think that they [Iran] maintain their occupation for strategic reasons," said Alani. "They have no legal right, absolutely not. There is a major issue here in the region because these islands are very close to the Straight of Hormuz, which is the lifeline for all the shipping in the region."

Director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, Theodore Karasik, believes the islands would be early targets in any armed conflict between Iran and Western powers.

"If there is a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, those islands will be taken out by the U.S. Air Force pretty quickly," said Karasik. "And in addition to that, at that point, I believe the UAE will move in its forces and reclaim the islands."

Earlier this week, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks published 250,000 U.S. diplomatic documents that were said to be top secret. They suggest that many Arab countries support a military attack on Iran to halt its nuclear activities and even imply that the United Arab Emirates has referred to Tehran as "evil."

Most nations believe Iran is attempting to assemble nuclear weapons although Tehran has repeatedly denied the accusations.

Brookings Doha Center Research Director Shadi Hamid says fear among the Gulf nations has been brewing for some time.

"These increasing fears have spread from GCC officials," said Hamid. "Of course we saw when the UAE ambassador to the United States said some very striking things about Iran a couple months ago where he actually urged the United States to use force against Iran. So we are seeing intensification of anti-Iran rhetoric on the part of many Gulf officials."

Tehran insists the disputed islands in the Gulf are an indisputable part of Iranian territory.