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.
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 Musa. He 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Article by Cecily Hilleary, VOA News