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 Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

With IS in Coalition Cross-Hairs, al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs