Numerous international conflicts exist among different world nations, occasionally resulting in serious escalation that results in the outbreak of destructive wars as in the cases of the Irani-Iraqi war, the Gulf War, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some conflicts have resulted in prolonged quasi-war situations as in the disputes over Kashmir and Cyprus. Many conflicts are also resolved through legal and diplomatic means and forums as in the commercial disputes between the US and the European Community. Yet, conflicts over territorial sovereignty generally tend to be more serious and threatening to world peace and order, especially when they result in massive losses of human lives and property, the creation of refugee situations, or political and national humiliation. The conflict between Iran and the UAE related to the territorial sovereignty over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, however, tend to be an exception with respect to other conflicts over territorial sovereignty.
The conflict between Iran and the United Arab Emirates related to sovereignty and jurisdiction over the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa has dominated the relations between the two countries for more than three decades, and today, this conflict remains one major obstacle to the development of international relations in the Gulf region.
The conflict is further complicated by the fact that it has political, cultural, historic and strategic dimensions. Yet at the same time, this conflict is not an unstable dispute that could give any rise to the use of force or to the outbreak of violent confrontation between the two parties involved. Accordingly, peaceful diplomatic and political perspectives are highly expected to bring out a resolution in the end, regardless of the difficulties that face such a prospect.
Historical Background of the Conflict
Historically and for centuries, the three islands subject of the conflict were under the sovereignty of the Arab rulers of the Omani coast which then included the emirates that today constituted the United Arab Emirates. The earliest international official recognition of such sovereignty dates back to 1864 when the Qawasim ruler of the Omani coastal areas “sent an official message to the British Resident informing him that the islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs, and Abu Neair had been ruled by his early ancestors, and would therefore remain under his rule” (Al-Roken, p.140). These islands had exchanged hands of different Arab rulers before, but the Qawasim rule throughout the 19th century was not disputed by Great Britain or any other regional powers.
Throughout the 1870s, the island of Abu Musa became an important agricultural center for the Qawasim who officially ruled the Sharjah emirate. The sovereignty of Sharjah over this island was further asserted in 1873 when the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Salem Bin Sultan fought to defend the island against his Qawasim rivals who ruled Lingeh. Even the rulers of Ras Al-Khaimah had earlier in 1871 denied the Lingeh Qawasmeh entry to the two Tunb islands without official permission. Eventually, the rulers of Lingeh confirmed the sovereignty of Sharjah over Abu Musa and that of Ras Al-Khaimah over the two Tunb islands (Al-Roken, p.141).
The Qawasim rulers of Lingeh were closely related to the Persian government and this eventually led to Persian attempts to claim the islands. Nonetheless, Great Britain through the British Government of India asserted the sovereignty of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah, considering the conflict among the Qawasims an internal conflict in which it had no interest (Al-Roken, p.141).
The independence of the Qawasim of Lingeh was finally terminated in 1887 when Persian troops invaded Lingeh, leading to the occupation of the island of Sirri which then was under their sovereignty. Although the British government protested the occupation of Sirri, no steps were taken to abrogate this occupation, especially that none of the other Qawasim rulers claimed any violation of their sovereignty (Al-Roken, p.141).
The Iranian claim to the three islands was officially forwarded in 1904 when Iran claimed the island of Abu Musa for the first time, particularly after discoveries showed that the island was rich in red oxide. Iranian troops thus landed on the island and the Iranian flag was hoisted on the island. Sharjah immediately protested this occupation and its position was strongly backed by the British Government which demanded that Iran showed evidence proving its claim to the island. Three months later, and following the Iranian failure to comply with the British condition, troops were withdrawn and the sovereignty of Sharjah over the island was restored (Al-Roken, p.141).
Tensions continued over the issue and this resulted in the initiation of talks between the British and the Persian governments in 1928 over the future of the islands. The British administration issued in August of that year a memorandum after an agreement with the Persian Government, recognizing the three islands as Arab territories, and the sovereignty of Ras Al-Khaimah over the two Tunb islands and that of Sharjah over Abu Musa. Negotiations were resumed in 1929 and Persian sovereignty over Sirri was finally officially recognized (Al-Roken, p.142).
In the same year, however, Iran offered to give up its claim to Abu Musa in return for the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands. Following the rejection of this offer, the Iranian government offered to purchase the two islands but once again the attempt was rejected. In 1930, the Persian government and Ras Al-Khaimah almost reached a deal after enormous British pressures by virtue of which Iran would lease the two Tunb islands for fifty years. The agreement, however was canceled as the ruler of Ras Al-Khaimah insisted that his flag would continue to be hoisted on the two islands during the fifty years of the lease agreement (Al-Roken, p.142).
In the late 1960s, and following the growing importance of the three islands as a result of the booming oil production in the Gulf region, tensions were escalated, leading to the initiation of talks between the disputing parties in 1970. Iran threatened to use force in case the talks were not concluded successfully, and this was iterated forcefully by the Shah on 28 September 1971 when he declared “We need them [the islands]; we shall have them; no power on earth shall stop us. If Abu Mus and Tunbs fell into the wrong hands, they would be of a great nuisance value” (Al-Roken, p.143).
The British government increased its intervention to prevent any further escalation of tension and by the end of November 1970, a Memorandum of Understanding was declared under British auspices. Sharjah and Iran agreed to enjoy a dual sovereignty of Abu Musa allowing for limited Iranian military presence on the northern edge of the island. Ras Al-Khaima, however, refused to give in any concessions to its title over the two Tunb islands, resulting in an immediately occupation of the two islands by Iran (Al-Roken, p.143).
The Claims of the Two Parties
Since 1971, both Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah became incorporated into the independent state of the United Arab Emirates which now holds the sovereignty claims to the three islands. The UAE bases its claims on the regional and international recognition of the sovereignty of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah to the three islands, with the support of all agreements reached with the Persian government since the beginning of the century and the Memorandum of Understanding that was sponsored by Britain.
Iran’s claims to the islands are based on four main aspects. First of all, the Iranian government argues that the word Tunb means ‘hill’ in a local Persian dialect. This claim, however, is disputed by the UAE on the basis that it is weak and at the same time an unprecedented basis for claiming territorial sovereignty. The second basis for the Iranian claim is that the islands were under Persian occupation during the eighteenth century. The UAE, however, argues that this occupation lasted for a very short period of time and that prior to this occupation and later on after it, the islands were under Arab sovereignty. Thirdly, the Iranian government makes its argument on the basis of the geographic proximity of the islands to Iran. The UAE refutes this claim on the basis that it is unprecedented in international laws or practices. Finally, the Iranian argument is based on the historical claim that the Lingeh Qawasim ruled the islands in their capacity as Persian officials. The UAE argues that whether the Lingeh Qawasim were Persian subjects or not is an irrelevant issue since it is historically proven that their rule was restricted to the island of Sirri over which there is no dispute (Al-Roken, p.144).
Following the escalation of tensions, the Iranian government presented two additional bases for its argument. First of all, it claimed the possession of a British map that was given to the Shah in the late 19th century, showing the islands under Persian sovereignty. The UAE refutes this argument with the fact that this map was not official and that it was erroneously recorded, especially that the official British and German maps related to the same historical period showed the islands under Arab sovereignty. The second basis was that Iran’s sovereignty of the islands was indispensable for the maintenance of its strategic security necessity. This claim, however, is internationally disputed since it does not comply with the spirits and values of international laws and agreements (Al-Roken, p.144).
Evaluating the claims of the two sides is an issue that can be pondered and contemplated in international legal circles. The concern here is evaluating the dispute and the paths taken to resolve this conflict.
Escalation of Tension
Although the tensions between the two sides reached a peak in 1971 following the Iranian military occupation of the two Tunb islands, over the years, tension between the two sides continued to escalate, especially as all attempts to reach a resolution reached dead ends.
In 1992 Iran tightened control over Abu Musa due to security claims. Although this island was jointly ruled by Sharjah and Iran since the Memorandum of Understanding in 1971, Iran finally consolidated its control over the island in 1992 and announced that its sovereignty over Abu Musa was not negotiable. At the same time, the Iranian government announced that it was willing to involve in bilateral talks with the UAE to clear up any misunderstandings. The UAE, in contrast, rejected these attempts to downplay the conflict asserting its title to the three islands and refusing to view the conflict as a mere misunderstanding (Lyon, online).
Between 1992 and 1998, tensions were once again escalated when Iran reiterated its full sovereignty over the three islands. Furthermore, the Iranian government increased its attempts to change the historical, legal and demographic characters on the three islands by encouraging Iranian settlers and commercial project there. In 1996, Iran built an airport in Abu Musa on a land area of 570 acres with the capacity to receive 700 passengers a day. Additional tourism projects were also planned despite the protestation of the UAE government (Compass ME News Service, online).
Attempts at Conflict Resolution
One important factor that has prevented the escalation of the conflict to violent and confrontational levels is the incompatibility between the two sides, especially that Iran is a major regional power in contrast to the small state of the UAE. Consequently, the UAE has announced over and again that it would not resort to military solutions under any circumstances but rather, would continue to commit itself to diplomatic, political and legal solutions instead.
The UAE insists that Iran is trying to achieve a ‘fait accompli’ by force by asserting its military control of the islands. However, the UAE has continuously expressed its confidence that military occupation and continued attempts to change the demographic and cultural characteristics of the islands does not and will not legitimize the Iranian occupation, nor would it convince the UAE to give up its claim for sovereignty over the three islands (Compass ME News Service, online).
The Bilateral Level
With respect to this conflict, there have been four levels of attempts at resolution. The first level relates to bilateral negotiations and talks involving the two parties to the conflict. While Iran has always called for bilateral talks with the UAE, the UAE has rejected such calls, pointing out that its sovereignty over the islands was not a matter of misunderstanding subject to negotiation or concessions. In 1992, the UAE finally agreed to enter bilateral talks with Iran but these talks reached a dead end as the UAE refused to give in any concessions, a position to which Iran reacted by consolidating its sovereignty over the three islands (Compass ME News Service, online).
More importantly, the UAE is avoiding direct bilateral negotiations with Iran because UAE officials are aware that they face more limitations than the Iranian side. To start with, Iran already has control of the three islands through its military occupation. By resorting to bilateral talks, the UAE would immediately be forced to give in more concessions to the Iranian side, regardless the consequences of the negotiations (Compass ME News Service, online).
Both Iran and the UAE are aware that negotiations at the bilateral levels are less likely to reach any results. The UAE is not willing to trade in any strategic concessions in return for its full sovereignty over the islands, and accordingly, it will continue to reject talks on the bilateral level. The Iranian government is aware of this position held by the UAE, but it nevertheless insists on bilateral negotiations, most probably in the hope of reaching a political resolution involving other players in the region.
The Regional Level
Since 1971, the Arab states of the Gulf region have expressed their support to the UAE position in this conflict. The establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 provided UAE, a member of this committee, with regional leverage with respect to its conflict with Iran. The members of the GCC, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait provided the UAE with substantial political support in its position vis-à-vis Iran.
Between 1981 and 1999, the GCC’s position with respect to the conflict was based on providing the UAE with full political support, urging Iran to withdraw its troops from the three islands. This position of the GCC was stimulated mostly by the poor relations that prevailed between the GCC members and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Despite this consolidated position of the GCC governments, reflected mostly in the form of economic sanctions and political boycotting of Iran, no breakthroughs of any kind were depicted until 1992, that is, following the liberation of Kuwait and the thaw in the ice between Iran and the Gulf Arab states.
The initial improvement in relations between Iran and the GCC members was very limited, but it eventually led to the startup of bilateral negotiations between Iran and the UAE. These negotiations ended in total failure due to the stiff and unyielding positions that the two sides took into consideration.
The election of the liberal reformist, Mohammed Khatami as president of Iran in 1997 brought about possible developments on the regional level. The new foreign policy of Iran towards its Arab neighbors in the Gulf region implied that it was possible to reach a solution. The UAE mobilized its diplomatic and political resources in order to maintain a consolidated position by GCC members towards the conflict. The UAE hoped that any improvement in relations between the UAE and GCC members would help pressure the Iranian government to make concessions with respect to its position on the three islands. Several GCC members had their own conflicts with Iran over various political and economic issues, specifically Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain. The UAE hoped that consolidation among the GCC members would eventually create sufficient pressure on the Iranian government which in turn was looking forward to improved economic relations with its Arab neighbors as part of its new political and economic policies.
The role played by the GCC with respect to this conflict can be divided into three phases. The first phase lasted from 1981 to 1991 during which the GCC’s position towards Iran was hostile and hence, resulting in a dead end in relevance to the conflict. From 1992 till 1999, GCC tried to mediate between the two sides while at the same time supporting the UAE position. The GCC position can be summarized by the statement made by the GCC Secretary General early in 1999, Jamil Al-Hujailan, “Iran would contribute to boost ties with other Gulf states by accepting repeated UAE calls to solve the dispute through the International Court of Justice” (“GCC backs UAE over island dispute with Iran,” online).
In May 1999, and following UAE demand, GCC formed a special committee to resolve the conflict between Iran and the UAE. The committee included Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. Iran’s reaction to the formation of this committee was negative mostly because the GCC had historically sided with the UAE against Iran (“UAE regrets GCC silence over disputes with Iran,” online). Iran’s position towards this committee was expressed by the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for African-Arab Affairs, Mohammad Sadr who pointed out that “the committee initially adopted a stand that showed it was not neutral and insinuated that the Iranian islands belonged to the UAE, which we do not accept” (“Iran repeats readiness to solve islands dispute with UAE”, online).
The tripartite committee has not only stimulated Iran’s rejection, but also a frustration on the UAE side. In the last GCC meeting in 1999, the conflict of the UAE with Iran was not even mentioned, nor were any recommendations pertaining to this conflict published. The UAE officials expressed their fears that the GCC position is softening its position towards Iran due to the development of special interests between some members, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar with Iran. Despite this frustration, the GCC’s softer position towards Iran could nominate the GCC as a more acceptable mediator between the two sides.
The International Level
International mediation in the conflict has not yet been sought seriously. Since 1971, the UAE has persistently raised the issue in all General Assembly meetings and conferences, demanding Iran’s withdrawal from the islands and the recognition of the UAE sovereignty over them. Although the UAE has continuously called for international arbitration in this conflict, it has not actually taken any serious steps towards taking the dispute to that level (“Iran repeats readiness to solve islands disputes with UAE,” online).
At the same time, the UAE had continuously raised the issue in the Arab League forums. In 1998, and following the two-day Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting, the memorandum was issued supporting the UAE claim and calling Iran to end its occupation of the islands and to solving the dispute peacefully (“Iran reiterates sovereignty over disputed islands,” online).
Since the UAE has maintained a low profile in raising the issue in the United Nations, the Iranian government has tended to ignore the conflict in international arenas, especially that it already had control of the islands. Nonetheless, Iran has continuously expressed its worries about the position of the Arab League, always pressing the need to initiate talks at the bilateral level rather than involving third parties (“Iran reiterates sovereignty over disputes islands,” online). Iran’s position with respect to the involvement of the Arab League is very much similar to its position towards a possible role of the GCC. The reason is that Iran has substantial interests with several Arab countries and therefore it fears that the UAE could mobilize a consolidate an Arab position pressuring Iran into resolving the conflict in favor of the UAE.
The two sides have not yet exhausted all options to resolve the conflict. However, the UAE is more concerned because it considers itself the injured party in this dispute. UAE officials have expressed that their last resort in case all other options failed, would be the International Court of Justice. In such a case, the UAE would raise the issue in front of the Security Council which in turn would recommend the arbitration of the International Court of Justice. However, the UAE is avoiding such a path in the hope that the conflict could be resolved diplomatically and politically without raising any tensions or hard feelings between the two sides involved (“Iran repeats readiness to solve islands dispute with UAE,” online).
The conflict over the three islands between Iran and the UAE has been kept at a low profile despite the difficult relations in the region, and in spite of the fact that the Gulf region remains one of the most unstable in the world. Such a low profile has been maintained due to a number of reasons. First of all, the two sides to the conflict are very incompatible militarily, and accordingly, this has discouraged the UAE from attempting to reach a military solution. Secondly, the dispute over the three islands, despite the escalation to the level of military occupation by one side, did not result in any serious effects to the UAE such as a refugee influx, a substantial economic loss, or an outright political humiliation. In addition to this, neither side is undergoing any substantial pressure to reach a resolution of this conflict within a limited deadline, nor does the lack of resolution create a threat to immediate interests of the two sides.
In the light of all these conditions, the conflict is characterized by the availability of a lot of space for political and diplomatic maneuvering for the injured party. At the same time, Iran has not been threatened into reaching a resolution, especially that it has maintained control over the three islands for almost three decades. At the same time, Iran is aware that it enjoys sufficient political leverage through occupying the islands such that even in case it was willing to give concessions to the UAE, it would still be able to protect its strategic interests in the three islands, as for example by achieving a concession from the UAE to maintain the presence of its troops on the islands. Even though this dispute might still take many years before it is resolved, the fact most obvious here is that a resolution will only be possible as the relations between Iran and the regional countries, especially the UAE improve gradually. The UAE, on the other hand, still has the option of resorting to the International Court of Justice, even though the outcomes of this solution may not be final or satisfactory to either side.
Alistair, Lyon. “Iran opens airport on UAE-claimed Gulf islands.” Online: www.infonautics.com. March 10, 1996.
Al-Roken, Mohamed Abdullah. “Historical and legal dimensions of the UAE dispute over three Gulf islands.” In Edmund Ghareeb & Ibrahim Al-Abed, eds. Perspectives on the UAE. London: The Trident Press, 1997: 139-158.
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