News / Middle East

    Iran-UAE Island Dispute Could Escalate

    Disputed Persian Gulf Islands
    Disputed Persian Gulf Islands
    Cecily Hilleary
    Together, Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs and Lesser Tunbs amount to fewer than 26 square kilometers of sand and scrub.  But their location in the middle of Persian Gulf shipping and tanker lanes near the Strait of Hormuz gives the islands huge strategic importance.
     
    And this importance extends not only to the United Arab Emirates and Iran – both of which claim the islands -- but far beyond.  The dispute over who has sovereignty over the islands dates back more than a century.  Until recently, the debate was a regional matter. Now, in the light of rising tension over Iran’s nuclear plans and Israel’s threats to attack Iran, the dispute could heat up quickly.
     
    Historic context
     
    In 1968, Britain announced it would withdraw from the Gulf region by the end of 1971.  It had taken control of the islands in the 1920s, but because they had been ruled by the Arab Qassimi family dynasty for at least two centuries, Britain decided to hand them over to Sharjah, slated to join the United Arab Emirates. 
     
    Iran disputed the decision, claiming its own historic rights to the islands.   Eventually, Britain brokered a deal between Iran and Sharjah giving them joint control of Abu Musa and equal shares in any future oil reserves.  No agreement, however, was reached on the two Tunbs islands.
     
    But on November 30, 1971, a day after British forces left the region and just two days before the UAE was to become an official federation, the Iranian military moved quickly and took the three islands by force. It has occupied them ever since.
     
    The UAE perspective
     
    Thomas R. Mattair is Executive Director of the Middle East Policy Council and author of The Three Occupied UAE Islands: The Tunbs and Abu MusaHe says Sharjah signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) under duress, therefore making it invalid.
     
    The Shah [of Iran] was on record many times as indicating that if he couldn’t get the islands any other way, he would take the islands by force and he talked about the military assets he had that would enable him to do that,” Mattair said.  “So the ruler of Sharjah signed the MOU under those circumstances, and he was right to be afraid that Abu Musa would be taken by force, because when his counterpart, the ruler of Ras Al-Khaimah did not sign an agreement with Iran, Iran did use force to take the Tunbs islands as well.”
     
    Mattair says Iran has no claim to the islands.  “Iran was asked many times by British officials during the 19th and 20th centuries to establish that they had used and possessed the islands, and they never really did come forward with documents, and therefore from a legal point of view, they have no case to make,” Mattair said
    UAE Calls on Iran to Take Islands Dispute to UN CourtUAE Calls on Iran to Take Islands Dispute to UN Court
    x
    UAE Calls on Iran to Take Islands Dispute to UN Court
    UAE Calls on Iran to Take Islands Dispute to UN Court

    “The UAE can produce historical documents that establish the fact that people from [what are now] the Emirates used and possessed the islands over a long period of time,” he said.  “And in international law, long, uninterrupted use and possession are the most important criteria for sovereignty.”

     
    The view from Tehran
     
    While Iran recognizes that Arabs ruled the islands for centuries, it argues they did so from the Iranian port city of Lengheh and therefore as Persian subjects—making the islands Iranian.
     
    The Islamic Republic of Iran stands firm in defense of its territorial integrity...
    Dr. Bahman Aghai Diba, a former Iranian diplomat, international lawyer and author of The Law and Politics of the Caspian Sea, says that Iran’s sovereignty over the islands has been well-established in historical books and documents—and even in the records of British authorities in colonial India.   In a statement he provided VOA, also published on the internet, he wrote:  “The British made a package deal with Iran, according to which Iran stopped its demand for the restoration of its sovereignty over Bahrain and took the three islands of the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu-Musa.” 
    Diba says that following what he terms the “restoration of the Iranian sovereignty” over the islands, three Arab countries, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, “thinking that they were the main leaders of the Arab world and…pretending that they acted as the representative of the Arabs,” complained to the UN Security Council. 
     
    “The United Arab Emirates was not one of them,” he said. “However, the UNSC heard the explanations of the parties and after hearing the report of the British representative that implicitly referred to a ‘package deal,’ the UNSC deleted the issue from its agenda.”
     
    As far as Diba is concerned, the matter was settled there and then—Iran has the rightful claim to the islands. 
     
    But U.N. records indicate that four Arab countries—Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen—requested an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the situation.  On December 9, 1971, just days after the Iranian seizure of the islands, Iraq’s ambassador complained about what he termed an “armed aggression by Iran,” worrying that it could impact regional security.  Iraq accused Britain and Iran of “collusion” contrary to the U.N. Charter.
     
    In the end, the Council decided to “defer consideration of the matter to a later date, allowing time for “thorough third-party efforts to materialize.”  The matter has not been taken up by the Council since.
     
    My government expresses, once again, its regret regarding the continued Iranian occupation of our three islands - Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs - and demands for the restoration of the UAE's full sovereignty.”

    The UAE has offered either to engage in bilateral talks with Iran on the issue or to take it to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  Diba says Iran is reluctant to consider the latter option because it wouldn’t stand a chance facing the combined opposition of the UAE and its supporters, i.e., members of the Arab League, the GCC, the European Union and the U.S.  “No country will be ashamed of standing against a regime that is known as an international thug in the world,” Diba said.
     
    Strategic significance
     
    The Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a statistical and analytical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, says 17 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait every day, which is nearly 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide.  If any party wanted to interrupt oil shipments, it could do so from these islands.  
     
    The Federation of American Scientists says Iran has built up a military presence on the islands that includes anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. 
     
    Last April, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Abu Musa, a move that, when viewed alongside repeated Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, was interpreted as a warning to the U.S. and Israel.  Mattair says Iran views its presence on the islands as a deterrent against attack, “although the deterrent would only be valuable for a day or two before their adversaries could neutralize it.”
     
    Analysts also view the visit as a signal to other Gulf states of Iran’s ambitions as a regional power.  
     
    At last month’s U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.A.E. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed reiterated an appeal for the dispute to be settled through negotiations or at The Hague. 
     
    Iran subsequently warned the UAE it was considering severing diplomatic ties with its neighbor over the dispute, then later retracted.

    You May Like

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora