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

Video Snowstorm Sweeps Northeastern US

'This is nothing like we feared it would be,' New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says; he had warned storm could be one of worst in city history More

Millions of Displaced Nigerians Struggle With Daily Existence

Government acknowledges over a million people displaced in 2014 due to fight against Boko Haram insurgency More

Facebook: Internal Error to Blame for Outages

Temporary outage appeared to spill over and temporarily slow or block traffic to other major Internet sites More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid