Commentary by Bart Hesseling – 15 April 2012
The recent visit by president Ahmadinejad of Iran to the disputed island of Abu Musa, the first by an Iranian head of state since Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1992, set off a storm of protest in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE recalled its ambassador from Tehran and even convened a special session of the GCC council of foreign ministers. The dispute over Abu Musa and the two Tunbs has become a symbol of Arab-Iranian enmity and, along with the occasional spats over the denomination of the Gulf (Arabian vs. Persian), provides a convenient way for both Iran and the Arab Gulf states to close ranks.
The crisis has its origins in the control of part of Abu Musa and the seizure of the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands by Iran in 1971. On November 29, 1971, Iran invaded the Greater and Lesser Tunb islands which were under the control of Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) and consolidated its presence on Abu Musa, which was under Sharjah rule. The Iranian invasion came one day before the treaty between Britain and the Trucial States was set to expire and the United Arab Emirates were born. Helicopters dropped leaflets over Greater Tunb demanding its inhabitants surrender to Iran’s authority, and a small RAK police unit fought a short battle with the 3.000-strong Iranian invasion force, after which the island’s residents were deported to RAK.
Abu Musa is a more complicated case. In 1971, the ruler of Sharjah and Iran agreed in a memorandum of understanding to divide the island into two administrative parts in return for an annual sum of £1.5 million for three years to be paid by Iran to Sharjah, while both countries continued to claim sovereignty. Iran was allowed to station troops on its part of the island. This was an unsatisfactory solution for both sides, but it endured even though Iran gradually extended its military presence by building an airbase. Matters came to a head in 1992 when Iran denied access to the island to non-UAE nationals, and ever since then the UAE has called on Iran to relinquish full control over Abu Musa with emotions running high. In 2010, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan indirectly compared Iran’s occupation of the three islands to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and South Lebanon.
Reclaiming Abu Musa and the Tunbs has been important to Emirati national pride and an occasional spoiler in relations with Iran.
The context of Arab-Iranian enmity and struggle over the control over the Gulf is important to understand the roots of this conflict. The Iranian claim over the islands is based on its self-perceived hegemony that it exercised over the Gulf before the advent of British imperial rule. The Islamic republic, and the Pahlavis and Qajars before it, repeatedly challenged the sovereignty of Bahrain and other domains on the southern shore.
There is not enough space here to give a full account of these claims, but it is important to note that before Britain gained imperial control over the Gulf, the region was an intricate web of changing power relations where control over ports and territory regularly changed hands. For instance, the Tunbs, over which Iran claims full sovereignty, were controlled for a period during the 19th century by a Persian branch of the Qawasem who rule the Sharjah and RAK emirates today, which provided both Persian and Qassimi rulers with arguments to stake a claim to the islands.
The British, who established control over the littoral areas of the Gulf to secure the trade routes to India and outlaw piracy, played competing claims off against each other, which later led the Shah of Iran to state his intention, well before the British withdrawal from the Gulf, to recover the islands, if necessary by force.
The Shah espoused an aggressive Iranian nationalism and a metaphysical notion of Iranian supremacy that needed the Arab ‘other’ to define itself. Iran’s military build-up starting in the 1960s, and repeated claims to Bahrain confirmed the fear in the Arab Gulf states that the Shah sought the ‘Iranianisation’ of the Gulf. Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs were an important element in the Shah’s determination to succeed Britain as the hegemonic power in the Gulf.
So why are these small islands of such great value to Iran and the UAE, now and then? The islands lie in a curve leading up to the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz. The strait has grown in importance as the ‘world’s biggest oil highway’ ever since the 1950s, when the giant Ghawar oil field came online in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, its strategic value has only increased as enormous gas reserves are being tapped in Qatari and Iranian waters and LNG-tankers need to pass through it.
A military presence on the islands provides Iran with a power of nuisance (if not a deterrent), as it can threaten to cut off shipping through the Strait. Yet it is questionable how credible this potential threat is when you consider that the world’s largest navy is permanently stationed in the Gulf. Still, in response, the UAE have been acquiring more security guarantees. In 2009, France established naval, air and army bases in the UAE, a move widely interpreted as a warning to Iran.
How can the conflict be resolved? By far the best solution would be to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which has both the legal competence and the experience to deal with territorial disputes. A condition for a dispute being taken up by the ICJ is however that all parties consent. The UAE has signalled its intention to go to court several times, but Iran has always dismissed the notion.
The problem in the Gulf is that territorial disputes never really go away, even when they have been legally settled. A dispute over the delineation of the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq was initially resolved in the Algiers Agreement of 1975, but resurfaced in the brutal first Gulf War of 1980-1988. Incidentally, Saddam Hussein promised the ‘liberation’ of Abu Musa and the Tunbs as a justification for his war on Iran.
In 2010, the shooting of a Bahraini fisherman and the jailing of many more by the Qatari coastguard reignited the row over Bahrain’s Hawar Islands, which prompted Bahrain to use the now-familiar ploy of closing al-Jazeera’s offices in Manama and reportedly even endangered the project for a causeway linking the two countries. The question of who held sovereignty over the Hawar Islands, two nearby shoals and the old town of Zubarah were settled in 2001 by the ICJ in what was its longest-running case to date.
Convening a GCC summit, condemning Iran and going for yet another diplomatic breakdown are not going to help, especially now since talks between Iran and the 5+1 group over the nuclear issue have resumed. Iran might be trying to provoke an Arab reaction that could scuttle the talks, or simply to deflect attention away from domestic issues. In any case, the Arab Gulf states would do well to let this particular episode fizzle out and not throw the embattled Ahmadinejad a bone.