The renewal of a nearly 100-year-old dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over three islands in the Strait of Hormuz is illustrative of a long and painful political evolution. The conflict, which has its roots in an older Balkanized, post-Colonial Middle East, is playing out in a new world order, in which international justice and diplomacy are steadily replacing armed conflict in the resolution of regional differences. The UAE has claimed ownership of the tiny islands, citing the validity of its 1971 Memorandum of Understanding (through Sharjah) with Iran and, through it, the eminence of international law. The Iranian claim is based largely on historical precedent, arguing, among other things, that when the agreement was made the Arabs who exercised sovereignty over the islands actually did so from Iranian soil. Over the years, diplomatic wrangling has been punctuated by periodic spasms of violence, including 197- when four Iranian marines were killed trying to seize Abu Musa. Ultimately, the intervention of international law has impacted the process, having forced the two parties to work together toward a solution. “In the contemporary world, states are required to resolve their border disputes by peaceful means. It is no longer acceptable that such disputes be resolved by force” (Roken, 182, 1971). It is this inescapable fact of modern global politics that works against nations that seek to employ “gunboat” diplomacy and shrill rhetoric to get what they want. Indeed, in the case of Iran, there does appear to be more at work than a debate over a fine diplomatic and legal point that has been debated for generations. Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb occupy a crucial point in a crucially important channel used to transport oil from the region, and are a source of a valuable natural resource (red iron). This has been the most persistent hurdle to a negotiated settlement between the Emirates and an Iran bent on strengthening its position both regionally and globally.

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It may well be argued that there is a preoccupation in Iran with territory and with the preservation and consolidation of power in the face of Western and Arab power and expansionist aims. It is a concern that can be traced deep into Iran’s distant past. “Whatever the reason for the resurfacing of the Abu Musa claims, many (observers) agree the Iranian collective psyche can be wounded by even the smallest verbal threat to the nation’s territorial integrity. History has not smiled on Iran, which has lost territory in the Caucasus, Baluchistan, Afghanistan and Bahrain after wars with Russia and highly unfavorable land sales by a succession of shahs” (Erdbrink, 2012). It is not difficult to extend that national sense of loss to the country’s dealings with Turkey, Great Britain and, more recently, with the United States, which has for decades been regarded by many Iranians as a vengeful and oppressive neo-colonial power bent on imposing its economic and political will in the region. Seen through the prism of international power politics, Iran’s position vis a vis UAE and the three islands comes into somewhat clearer focus. However, if Iran’s primary concern was with maintaining its territorial integrity in light of the aggression and past depredations of foreign powers, it must be asked why then the Iranians have resisted placing the matter in the hands of international authorities, such as the United Nations Security Council. “The UAE has indicated that it adheres to its right to exercise sovereignty over the three islands, stressing its title to them…However, Iran, because of the weakness of its legal position and the difficulty of supporting its claim to the three islands, has rejected such an approach” (Roken, 179, 1971). If Iran believed it truly had a strong legal position upon which to make its claim, presumably there would be no impediment to following the prescribed legal processes for resolving international disputes. However, it would seem that the Iranians’ ingrained distrust of foreign entanglement in its affairs have combined with a need to disguise extra-legal motives (i.e. control of the channel and red iron).

Indeed, Iranian actions over the past two decades have been blatantly provocative, characteristic of a larger, stronger nation seeking to intimidate a smaller one. Iran has staged a number of military actions on and around Abu Musa, including the staging of military maneuvers in UAE territorial waters in the vicinity of Abu Musa in 1999. Iran also deployed medium-range missiles there in 1999, and have established an Iranian municipality on the island, going so far as to hold elections (Abed and Hillyer, 2001, 195). These actions violate the letter of the Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries, though Iran has charged that the UAE’s claims in the matter are nugatory because Iran’s sovereignty predates the colonialist epoch which led to, among other things, the formation of the UAE itself and the loss of Iranian territory (occasioned by British and Russian invasions during World War II). In early December 2013, Iranian officials indicated they were willing to discuss the matter with representatives of the Emirates with the proviso that Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb have historically been, and continue to be, Iranian territory.
The post-Ahmadinejad regime in Iran has of late sought better relations with the West in light of conflict over the country’s nascent nuclear program, which may well have a great deal to do with Iran’s new-found openness to talks over the islands.

Regardless, it is important to bear in mind that “historical” claims to territory are often outdated and hold little legal weight in the modern-day, post-Cold War world. Thus, the Emirates, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League have pressed for the International Court of Justice to have a role in settling the matter (The Estimate, 2001). Today, standing agreements between nations are seen as bearing the full weight of international law, not as representing the aims and ambitions of individual nations. Therefore, the extant understanding between Iran and the UAE should be upheld, and Iran’s efforts to consolidate its territory and power in the world’s most volatile region should be carefully guarded against, not by force but through the deliberation and observance of international law.

  • Abed, I. and Hellyer, P. United Arab Emirates: A New Perspective. Cape Town, South Africa: Trident Press, 2001.
  • “Abu Musa and the Tunbs: The Dispute That Won’t Go Away, Part One.” The Estimate, vol. XIII, no. 13, 24 July, 2001.
  • Erdbrink, T. “A Tiny Island Is Where Iran Makes a Stand.” The New York Times, 30 April, 2012.
  • Roken, M. A. “Dimensions of the UAE – Iran Dispute over Three Islands.” 28 September, 1971.