Persian Gulf's "occupied territory"

Iran-UAE dispute over three islands


Persian Gulf's "occupied territory"
by Simon Henderson

Last month, Tehran announced it was building maritime offices on the Persian Gulf island of Abu Musa, reigniting the long-standing territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 1970, the disagreement over the island and the neighboring Greater and Lesser Tunbs has been mired in legal uncertainty and historical claims and counterclaims, hindering diplomatic relations between Iran and the Gulf Arab states. The recent diplomatic intensity surrounding the issue, however, including the UAE's August 21 formal protest to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, is a significant break from the past, and may be a forerunner to a future escalation. Considering the importance of the islands -- all three are strategically located near the Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world's oil passes daily -- the dispute's outcome is deeply tied to the interests of the United States and the international community.

War of Words

On September 2, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE -- issued a statement condemning Iran's actions and demanding that it remove its "illegal installations and respect the [UAE's] sovereignty." On September 3, a spokesman from Iran's foreign ministry complained that the GCC statement interfered "in Iran's internal affairs," and went on to say that "all [Iran's] measures on Abu Musa are completely legal and in accordance with Iran's rights of governing this Iranian island." He urged the Gulf Arab states to be "realistic." Two weeks earlier, GCC secretary-general Abdulrahman al-Attiyah compared Iran's presence on the islands to Israel's occupation of Arab lands, telling a pan-Arab newspaper, "It is not permissible for states to occupy the territory of others." In May, the UAE protested against Iran's dismissal of the dispute as a "misunderstanding," and an Emirati official compared Iran's behavior with that of Israel.

Origins of the Dispute

In the nineteenth century, the British navy landed on the islands as part of a campaign to stop piracy in the Gulf. Since then, British records portray confusion, bequeathing the islands to both Iran (then Persia) and the tribal sheikhs on the Arabian side of the Gulf. On November 30, 1971, Iran, under the Shah, occupied the islands a day before UAE's independence from Britain. The United Kingdom was not in a position to stop the Shah, since its forces were withdrawing from the Gulf, and the UAE, being a new and fragile confederation of small sheikhdoms, was also unable to respond. There is, however, a widespread belief in the region that Britain allowed Iran's takeover as a quid pro quo for Tehran abandoning its claim to the island state of Bahrain. (It gained independence in 1971 when Britain's plan to include Bahrain and Qatar in the UAE confederation fell apart.) Ironically, senior U.S. officials supported Iran's 1971 seizure because it filled the regional security vacuum caused by the British withdrawal.

Since 1971, the dispute has been a key element of UAE diplomacy in Arab forums and in the international community, serving to bind the country's disparate federation whose members, though notionally equal, vary widely in terms of oil wealth. Abu Musa is claimed by Sharjah, the third largest member of the UAE after Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The other two mainly uninhabited islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb are claimed by Ras al-Khaimah, another emirate in the seven-member union. On November 13, 1971, the ruler of Sharjah reluctantly accepted an interim deal with Iran, which led to the sharing of the Abu Musa's offshore oil revenues. While both sides continued to claim full sovereignty, Iran changed the status quo in 1992 by restricting UAE access and dramatically increasing Iranian presence on the islands, including military. Although the UAE and Iran have partially agreed on a continental-shelf boundary between the two countries, the agreement does not include the area around the islands.

The UAE claim to the islands, particularly Abu Musa, has been weakened by the country's inability to counter violations of the original 1971 memorandum of understanding. At the same time, Iran's position has become more entrenched, as it is prepared to talk with its weaker neighbor -- but not negotiate -- and rejects the UAE's suggestion that the dispute be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. (In 2001, the ICJ successfully defused a dispute between Qatar and Bahrain over the ownership of offshore islands.) Tehran's diplomatic stance was also bolstered by the hint of less than total Arab unity when earlier this year Iraq pointedly declined to be associated with the dispute in a communique at the end of an Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting. This contrasts with Iraq's position under Saddam Hussein when Baghdad championed the issue, including an ill-fated attempt to seize the islands in 1980 at the start of the Iran-Iraq war.

Challenges for the United States

In recent months, Iranian officials have been stating that any military confrontation over Tehran's nuclear program would result in retaliation in the Gulf. The Islamic Republic's record of following through on such threats, however, has been checkered. In August, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, noting the strategic importance of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, wrote that "closing the Strait of Hormuz is part of Iran's defense policy in the face of the U.S. military threat." Although U.S. commanders have noted that such an attempt would be short-lived and invite massive retaliation, there is concern that Iran might have some success against the U.S. Navy by using small, fast boats. (See Policy Focus #87, Iran's Asymmetric Naval Warfare by Fariborz Haghshenass.)

Iran's decision to put a ship registration office on Abu Musa might be seen as mirroring the existence of Oman's shipping office -- the Gulf state sees itself as the guardian of free navigation through the Strait of Hormuz. Both the inbound and outbound shipping channels through the Strait lie on the Omani side of the continental shelf boundary agreed on with Iran. The shipping channels, each two miles wide with a separation zone in between, pass respectively north and south of the Tunbs, while Abu Musa lies further to the south.

It is difficult to tell how long and at what intensity the current war of words will continue, but it seems likely that the UAE will attempt once again to gain some UN endorsement of its position. In the meantime, there could be close encounters between Iranian vessels and those of the U.S. navy and its allies. Last month, there was a five-day exercise involving U.S., British, and Bahraini ships. The British commander stated that the maneuvers would help fine-tune skills such as "locating and tracking" vessels that threaten ships patrolling the Gulf. Two days earlier, Iran stated it had started a production line for submarines, and the Iranian defense minister said Iran saw itself as "the protector of the security of the strategic Strait of Hormuz."

The Gulf Arab states have been ambiguous about how to handle Iran. The intensity of the latest squabble is at odds with their usual careful diplomacy, and there is a danger of escalation. Tehran is also upping the diplomatic stakes by complaining about the ill treatment of its nationals in the UAE, where roughly 450,000 Iranians live and are a part of an important bilateral trade network. It remains to be seen whether Iran's actions on Abu Musa are best interpreted as self-confident gestures or bellicose provocations.

Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow at The Washington Institute and director of its Gulf and Energy Policy program. He is author of the Institute's 2008 Policy Focus Energy in Danger: Iran, Oil, and the West.



Looking for attention?

by farokh2000 on


Are you just looking for some attention or are you just so ignorant?

All you have to do is go back and read a little about that area and you will find out, as our friends here have pointed out, those Islands have been part of Iranian territory for much longer than U.S. has been in existance.

My guess is you are just trying to get some attention and feel important that you have expressed some opinion, even though it might be pretty idiotic.

Good lock to you and whomever you speak for.


WHich "Gulf" is being

by CyrusS (not verified) on

WHich "Gulf" is being referred to here?


To Amir Nasiri

by Amir Kabir in Fin sitting in his blood up to neck (not verified) on

I like the idea of starting a petition against the British interferences and crimes in Iran. I would leave the Arabs out of it for now. We do not want to see an alliance between the British and Arabs against us. We should first kick the British out of Iran and close all their commercial interest in Iran. Our alliance with the Chinese and Russians will help us beat the crap out of the British roots in Iran. Let's start the petition not for monetary reimbursement but total departure of the British from Iran.

مسئله چیز دیگری است. شما باید اول دشمن واقعی را شناسائی کنید بعد به بحث بپردازید. تمام فشارهای دینی و مذهبی و اجتمائی در ایران در اثر نفوذ بیگانگان است. ایرانیان اصیل هیچگونه دشمنی با ادیان دیگر ندارند.

275 سال است که دولت انگلیس عرصه را به ملت ایران تنگ کرده است. فواحش وطن فروش بساز و بفروش و جیره خوار انگلیس مادر خود را و مام میهن را برای چند هزار دلار به انگلیس فروخته اند.

ملت ایران باید بیاموزد که تنها راه چاره، اخراج تمام اتباع جیره خوار انگلیس، صیغه کردن اولاد مونث آنها و بستن سفارت فاسد و شیره کش خانه های آنها که تحت عنوان کنسولگری در سایر شهرها به پخش هروئین، تریاک وشیره مشغول هستند.

مرگ بر انگلیس خمینی پرور
مرگ بر انگلیس که مارا با آمریک دشمن کرد
مرگ بر انگلیس که مارا با اسرائیل دشمن کرد

سفارت انگلیس را باید بست


What disputes?

by Abarmard on

Did the British and American military see what happens when anyone crosses over the Iranian borders without permission?


British and Arab must Pay

by Amir Nasiri (not verified) on

Dear Friend,

Yesterday I wrote a blog regarding the British retribution to Iranian people for many years of stealing:


Arabs must do the same, for their open support for Sadam during Iran-Iraq war specially UAE that openly praised Saddam for Killing Persians.

I am willing to start a support group that gets people signature and we can present it to the UN.

The money will ot go to the Iranian government but to the people of Iran.



by aaminian on

Stay out DS. This is an Iranian matter and we don't need people like you to comment on it. Iranians KNOW how to take care of themselves.


We can solve the problem of the islands...

by پیام on

... by smacking whoever that challenges Iran teritorial integrity which never again will be on dispute. Arabs and whoever else that is nurchuring the wet dream of parting Iran to pieces, can easily be smacked back to reality that Iran will never, I repeat, never let go of any of it's teritory.


I bet...

by Parthian on

The same characters who hate the neocons/republicans/etc...are always hating on everybody, why is that? I bet if we look at all the posts on this site, these characters always blame the British, Americans, Jews, Zionists, Arabs, etc. For once, I would like to see some evidence  how Israel, or United States or even the government of Britain is involved in this? Can you guys provide a shred of evidence? US government has many problems with the Iranians government, it need not this as "pretext" to war.

No, those "american agents" such as myself do not blame Iran for this problem, but IR should be  blamed for Iran's weakness in the international arena.


Take the 3 islands give us back Bahrain

by Anonymous Iranian (not verified) on

Bahrain was a part of Iran,but because of British power and because of weakness of the late Shah he had no choice but to give up Bahrain and accept Bahrain to become independent.Later on the British put one of their puppet Sheik as Amir.If I remember correctly the three islands were under the control of British as well and because British did not wanted the Shah to feel bad they gave the control of the Islands to Iran.Anytime I remember the time when the Shah gave up I feel sad,but I guess under those circumstances he did not have a choice ,he was their puppet.


Divide & conquer! Arabs & Iran. The winner US, UK & Zions!

by goldust (not verified) on

What a timing! All of a sudden before the election and when US/UK want to use the very important strategic islands to control the oil and to attack Iran, UAE calims they are going to court for the islands! What court! How much do they know about the court unless US/UK are the ones behind their move where they have full control of the world courts & UN!

This is another funny joke! If there was a real just court and UN, they would have kicked out the imperialsts from Iraq. Afghanestan, Persian gulf, Pakestan and so on long time ago! UN was created by them to control the world and that is why they have Veto power! Are we going to fall for that? NO! Their end is approaching! Persian gulf and all the islands in it belong to IRAN only! The camels couldn't have traveled to those islands!

Arab governments are not Iran's friends, but most of their populations are!

Israel & Israelis are no one's friend including Iran's! Zionists use everyone only for the good of israel! Let's not be fooled by those zionists who are trying to stir controversy between us so they win as they were behind Iran Iraq war and rest of the mid east wars for the last 40 years!
Down with Imperialists US/UK & Israel! Long live Iran and Iranians!
Who is this Henderson anyway? What does he want? Another pig and Iran's enemy?


fellow, UAE did not EXIST until 1971

by Jaleho on

The author says: " ... the long-standing territorial dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 1970, the disagreement over the island and the neighboring Greater and Lesser Tunbs has been mired in legal uncertainty and historical claims and counterclaims, "

First of all, by International law, no state can reject agreements which had come into being before its creation unless such agreements had been officially declared as void by the newly created state. 

The three Persian Gulf islands  which historically were owned by Iran fell under British control temporarily.

Then, they returned to Iran on November 30th 1971 through a legal process before the state of the United Arab Emirates was created and the Al Nahyan assumed leadership.


Pan Arab and Persian Ajam

by Amir Nasiri (not verified) on

For over century the British government has robbed our country. First by meddling in our internal affairs then by stealing our natural resources.

Then they created a rift in middle east one Israel, Arab and the Persian. They empowered the Arabs so they can balance the regional power in the region.

UAE is nothing but a British creation and now the Americans are using them as to balance the decisons in that region.

During the Iran-Iraq war, UAE funneled billions of dollars to Saddam for destruction of Iran.

The Arabs refer to Persian as Ajam or non believers. We are the number oe enemy.

They hate us more than they hate the Jews and the government of Israel.

The only friend Iran has in that region and I have said it for many times it is the state of Israel.

Arab countries are our number 1 enemy and when time comes they will drop the nuclear bomb on us.

The current Iranian regime has sold the Iranian soul to the Arabs.


Your muslim brothers

by Zion on

just feel their love. :-)


Scolarly reference on this issue

by Iranian-American (not verified) on


Clearly Iran's claims seem a lot more credible given the Persian presence since 1000 BC. We need to be careful, however, since this may be a matter cooked up to create friction between Iranians and Arabs. Sticking to the historic ownership claims is the right approach by using racially demeaning words is not.


what dispute?

by MRX1 (not verified) on

These islands have always been part of Iran. Iran has been around for several thousend years. UAE was not even a country untill thirty some years a go. so unless Iranians were so lazy in the past sevral thousend years that they didn't even venture into persian gulf even once, it's safe to say they always were part of Iran. Mr. Henderson should convince his British pals to give up the occupation of Northern Ireland!


It's really UAE on behalf of US, UK and Israel!

by goldust (not verified) on

Give us our Bahrain back as well! Little sheikhdom has balls only because the US & UK want to control the persian gulf and the entire region!


Washington is looking for pretexts to spark an attack on Iran

by Baba Noel (not verified) on

What better opportunity than to use Uncle Sam's Arab puppet dictatorships to foment another fabricated Gulf of Tonkin-style incident in order to spark a conflict with Iran? Needless to say, Uncle Sam's propagandists on will blame Iran for the incident and insist on the U.S. government's complete innocence.


Those fat Shieks can...

by Nader on


We will NEVER give up an inch of our country.

Now, go back and hide under a British flag before I come after you:-)