Over the last few decades, the issue of the rightful owner of the three islands in the Gulf region has been a highly contested matter between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. The three islands : Greater Tunbs, Abu Musa, and Lesser Tunbs amounts to lesser than 26 KM2 of scrub and sand. However, the islands’ proximity to strategic points in the Persian Gulf has always accorded them a big economical significance.
It should be observed here that this great importance directly associated with the location of the islands does not only extend to Iran and the Emirates, who are said to be the largest claimers of the land, but far beyond.
The ownership disputes over the islands dates back over one hundred years ago, and this has consistently drawn the attention and concern of the international communities onto the matter. The three islands belonging to the UAE were taken years ago by the Iranian government and the conflict began to rise again due to Iranian pressures.
This big concern about the islands was more of a regional matter than anything else, and in that case, there were unsuccessful interventions by the British forces in the late 1960s, to ensure that both Iran and the UAE had equal control over one of the islands that was of great economical importance.
This memorandum of understanding granted the two states equal share on the economic outcomes of Abu Musa Island. However, none of the two countries could renounce full claims on the island’s sovereignty. These new developments had occurred as a result of Britain’s announcement in the late 1960s that it intended to vacate the region by the end of the year 1971.
The Iranian government had highly disputed this decision claiming their own historic rights on the highlands, and this would eventually see their troops forcibly gain control over the islands towards the end of 1971 (Mobley, 2003).
However, Iran was obliged to abandon this misguided claim following a referendum that was conducted on Bahrain under the supervision of the United Nations, but this did not stop them from having full control and authority over the islands.
According to the claims that were initially presented by Tehran, the three islands were long managed by Iran, before they were later seized by the British government within the Gulf in the nineteenth century (Salman Al-Saud, 2004). The Emirates, however, came up with claims that Arab leaders had ruled the islands for over two hundred years.
Iran had tried to raise an ownership claim to the three islands in the early 1920s, but this move was quickly opposed by the British, who had a different perspective on the matter. This would ensure that the control of the three islands was retained by Sharjah. The latest tensions on the matter escalated in the early 1990s, when the Emirates accused the Iranians of violating the agreement that gave them an equal authority over the Abu Musa Island.
These claims were laid open in the year 2008 when it was reported that Iranians had already established maritime offices in the island, thus prompting serious protests from the Emirate’s side.
This increased domination of the island by the Iranians appeared to give power to one side, while exploiting the other, as opposed to the requirements of the memorandum of understanding which had been signed by the two states in 1971, with regard to the control of the Abu Musa.
As it would be observed, this prolonged dispute between Iran and the UAE with regard to the true ownership of the three islands has recently necessitated a number of events and incidents.
For instance, the controversial and provocative issue has facilitated a wise initiative by the UAE in the recent years, to resolve the matter through negotiations reached upon Iran and themselves, the International Court of Justice or any other suitable forum that involves the international attention. UAE’s government has constantly reaffirmed their claim to ownership of the islands, condemning Iran’s military occupation and domination on the matter (Kozhanov, 2011).
In this context, the UAE has gone ahead to offer a number of suggestions on the most appropriate options that should be followed in addressing the matter.
The first option would be engagement in direct bilateral talks between the two major rivals on the matter; Iran and the UAE. This approach will address the question of sovereignty of the three Islands, among other key issues surrounding the Iranian occupation and control of the islands. There are no any preconditions that have been set by the UAE against the Iranian government, as far as this approach is concerned.
The other option that had been proposed by the UAE towards a permanent resolution on the issue was to seek the advice and judgment of international parties such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Even though the UAE had expressed their willingness to accept any ruling that might be reached upon by the ICJ regarding the sovereignty of the islands, Iranians have completely rejected anything to do with any of these two options.
The above specific phenomenon had triggered new suspicions from the Iranian government who saw this as a plan to rob them of their sovereignty over the disputed islands (Anthony, 2010). In this regard, Iranians would later on accept to engage into bilateral talks on the matter, but on a number of conditions.
The officials representing Iran on the matter had clearly expressed their complete unwillingness to tackle the question of the three islands’ sovereignty. According to the officials, their main concern on the talks would be aimed at resolving the misunderstandings between them and the UAE on this progressive issue.
Even though the International law has been clear on its enforcements that sovereignty cannot be achieved through the way of coercion or military invasion, the presence of Iranians on the three islands continues to raise many questions. This, however, explains the reason as to why the Iranians have been unwilling to allow the involvement of the ICJ in this matter.
This is simply because the international court is likely to rule in favor of the Emirates as far this issue is concerned, owing to the weakness stand of the Iranians in terms of the international law on this specific matter.
However, Iran has over the years used this as their vantage point from which they can have full control over the matter, since the international court can only exercise their jurisdiction power on the matter where the involved parties have given in to referral of a dispute, and that is something which they have refused completely.
The above approach by the UAE was intended to effectively improve the conflicted relationship between Iran and the UAE, but it has only succeeded at raising unanticipated tensions on whether there would ever be a permanent resolution on this matter, which has threatened to tear the interests of the two countries apart.
This is contained in the interests of each of the two rivals to have a sovereign power and authority over the three islands, which are certain to generate significant economical benefits, among other attractive alternatives. Moreover, the outcomes of this move by the UAE would be even more of a serious conflict between the two nations, than an attempt to bring them together through a permanent resolution, as it was previously intended.
UAE’s efforts to regain control of the islands from the Iranians through whichever means has subsequently been considered to be a move which is likely to severe more the diplomatic ties between this two adversaries and other gulf states (Nuruzzaman, 2012). This may also result to violence and attacks, considering the much-spread word that Iran has established a strong military presence on the disputed islands as a way of securing them from the Emirates.
This security detail, as it will be observed, constitutes of both anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to ensure maximum safety measures of the islands from any point of attack. This exaggerated security concern is a clear indication that the Iranian government is not ready to surrender the sovereignty of the islands to any other state, and that they are willing to act in any possible manner against any plans to relieve them of this significant right.
Some of the major consequences that are likely to sprout from this phenomenon would include poor social fabrics and disintegration of the close and multifaceted trade relationships that have existed between Iran and the UAE. As it would be observed, Iran-UAE economic ties have risen steadily over the past ten years.
This however, would be expected, considering the fact that the Emirates have emerged as Iran’s key connection and access to global economy in the recent past, as trade sanctions against Iran continue to take serious effect on their economy (Ulrichsen, 2009). No wonder, major global traders such as China and Japan have started conducting bilateral economic activities with Iran, through the UAE.
The flourishing Iran-UAE economical relationships, however, may be short-lived following Iran’s failure to honor the UAE’S decision on the islands’ issue. In the events arising from this phenomenon, there have been consistent concerns that the Iranian government poses the biggest threat to Emirate’s political, economical, and even national security.
It leaves no doubt that this dispute over the islands has been the most persistent cause of bilateral tension between the two Gulf States, as it is observed from this essay. As a matter of fact, the islands’ issue remains a constant irritant in the social and economical relationships of the two countries, thus undermining any development efforts applied by the countries.
Even though this constant threat over the islands has never escalated to the levels of extreme violence, there have been increased concerns of late that these tensions may eventually result to serious bilateral tensions or conflicts. In order to contain the impact of all these potential consequences, Iranians should stop seeing themselves as an imperial power, and try to cooperate more intensively on the UAE’s idea of peaceful negotiations to resolve this big issue which has threatened to tear them apart.
Anthony, J. (2010). 5 Strategic dynamics of Iran-GCC relations. Industrialization in the Gulf: A Socioeconomic Revolution, 78(8), 28-35.
Kozhanov, N. (2011). US Economic Sanctions against Iran: Undermined by External Factors. Middle East Policy, 18(3), 144-160.
Mobley, R. (2003). The Tunbs and Abu Musa Islands: Britain’s Perspective. The Middle East Journal, 17(6), 627-645.
Nuruzzaman, M. (2012). Conflicts between Iran and the Gulf Arab States: An Economic Evaluation. Strategic Analysis, 36(12), 542-553.
Salman Al-Saud, F. (2004). Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Power Politics in Transition. United Kingdom: IB Tauris.
Ulrichsen, K. (2009). Internal and external security in the Arab Gulf states. Middle East Policy, 16(2), 39-58.