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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs