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Iran and UAE: Islands in Dispute

February 18, 2019

Iran and UAE: Islands in Dispute

The Islands Dispute between Iran and the UAE

Iran has been embroiled in an enduring dispute with the United Arab Emirates over three islands in the Strait of Hormoz: Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The ownership of these islands has for centuries alternated between Persia and Emirate Kingdoms as well as their modern-day successor states. Also known as the Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs conflict, this dispute started in 1971 when the British forces withdrew from these islands, setting the stage for the Imperial Iranian Army, under the aegis of the shah of Iran, to annex them. Prior to Iran moving in, the islands were ruled by Sharjah, one of the seven emirates constituting the United Arab Emirates.


As part of a new agreement between the shah and Britain, Iran was given the right to maintain a military garrison on Abu Musa while the civil administration of the island was to be shared between the newly independent United Arab Emirates and Iran. The British acquiescence to Iranian presence on these islands was construed as London’s decision to appease the shah’s appetite for Bahrain, to which he had previously laid claim, but which he later relinquished after the departure of the British. The dispute continued even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.


Iran has since consolidated its control of Abu Musa island while claiming sovereignty over all three islands for historical reasons. Iran also changed the status quo in 1992 by restricting the UAE access while significantly increasing its military presence on the islands. Moreover, though the UAE and Iran have come to a partial agreement on a continental-shelf boundary between the two countries, this agreement does not include the area around the islands.In April 2012, the Iranian Foreign Ministry declared that Iran’s ownership of the Islands was “definitive, permanent and non-negotiable” Strangely, this largely low-intensity dispute which continues to this day, has not made its way to the International Court of Justice or any specialized tribunal.


Despite their small size, the location of these islands is of immense strategic importance.  Location-wise, these islands are situated near the Strait of Hormoz through which close to 20 percent of world’s is transported on a daily basis. Hence, they’re important for the stability of global oil market. Iran has already threatened to close the Strait of Hormoz at different occasions in time as a retaliation to US and Saudi maneuvering in the region. US officials have time and again noted that such an attempt by Iran would be short-lived and give rise to a massive retaliation while also remaining cautious about the possibility of its outbreak.


Recent Developments

With Trump’s arrival in power, the Qatar crisis, and the ensuing polarization in the Gulf, the relations between Iran and the UAE have recently gone through a setback. Especially noteworthy is UAE’s siding with Saudi Arabia to curb Iran’s posturing in the region. Recently, UAE’s Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed condemned Iran’s meddling in the Arab region as part of his speech at the 73rdsession to the UN’s General Assembly, reaffirming the UAE’s demand for its “legitimate right to sovereignty over its three islands” and accusing Iran of occupying them for 47 years “in flagrant violation of international law and the UN Charter.” During the same session, in response to Bin Zayed’s comments, Iran’s President Rouhani reiterated Iran’s claim to the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb and said Iran would be willing to “participate in negotiations with the United Arab Emirates to put aside any misunderstanding”.


Despite sustained trade relations between UAE and Iran, bilateral relations are increasingly under pressure as UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continue their mission to counter Iran’s influence in the region.


Vahid Yucesoy