Lack of adequate historical sources that point out clearly territorial boundaries in the Arabian Gulf has contributed to sovereignty conflicts, a good example being the UAE-Iran dispute. Although some recorded documents and historical events support UAEs rightful ownership of the three Islands, Iran has constantly rejected those claims . The dispute has not yet been solved because as the United Arab Emirates maintain that it should have ownership over the three islands, Iran asserts that it should have sovereignty over the islands . This paper will discuss the historical background of the conflict as well as the current situation of dispute.
Historical background of the dispute In the seventeenth century, Islamic conquests in the Arabian Gulf led to the Islamic caliphate decline in power. This had local powers such as Oman maintain sovereignty and control over the region. A close link of the Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs and Lesser Tunbs to the Southern Coast area remained until the presence of European colonial powers began to change leadership and governance issues in the Gulf. Historical records confirm that the fall of Yaaruba state in Oman (1524-1741) paved way for the establishment of a new power in the Gulf referred to as Qawasin.
Sharjah and Ras al -Khaimah were the two factions of Qawasin that had sovereignity over the Gulf islands. The first document to confirm the UAE legal title to the three islands is the official message that the Qawasin ruler sent to the British Resident. As a result, any form of interference with the sovereignty aroused protests. In the 1870s, Abu Musa served as a resort for the Qawasin rulers of Sharjah and also as an agricultural centre. The two Qawasin factions (Lingeh Qawasin and the Qawasin of the southern coast) were constantly involved in disputes about the Gulf islands.
The dominant colonial power then (the British government of India) failed to interfere in the conflict because it considered it to be a local issue. However, efforts by a British political agent, Haji Abdurrahman to demonstrate that the Islands belonged to Lungeh Qawasin were disapproved. The Qawasin of the Southern Gulf continued to exercise sovereignty over the three islands until the late nineteenth century when the imperial Irans influence began to spread to the northern Gulf . Persian armies in 1887 invasion of Lingeh led to the expulsion of Qawasin governors expelled from the island of Sirri.
Since the offensive launched by Persia enabled it to occupy to Island of Sirri, the Qawasin of the Southern Coast developed fears about the territorial ambitions of Persia. Iran confirmed the fears when it set forth claims to other Islands. However, the British government was opposed to Irans occupation of Sirri Island and supported Qawasin title to the Islands. As a result, the British government demanded that Iran explain hoisting of its flag on the Sirri Island as well as provide evidence of its claims to the Island.
Iran pointed out that the strongest evidence of its ownership to the Island was its occupation and possession of the island. In 1904, Irans territorial and political ambitions together with the economic interests of some influential elements in the government strengthened its claim to Abu Musa Island . This marked Irans intentions to challenge Sharjah about its sovereignty over Abu Musa. For instance, Iran was interested in the red oxide resource that was found in the island. In efforts to take over control of the island, Iran sent a mission that was led by a Belgian officer to hoist an Iranian flag on Abu Musa.
Protests against this move by the ruler of Sharjah were supported by the British Resident, who demanded that Iran submit evidence of ownership to the island. The failure by Iran to provide evidence had it withdraw quietly from the conflict three months later. British presence in the Gulf emphasized on the ownership of Abu Musa and the Tunbs by the states of Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah . Good relations between the two led to a signing of an agreement between the ruler of Sharjah and the British government in 1912 which facilitated the establishment of a lighthouse on Greater Tunbs.
This allowed Sharjah to grant a five year red oxide exploration concession to a British national known as Strick. Iran protested against this move. Following a verbal understanding between the Iranian government and Britain that the three islands were Arab territories, the British administration on 24 August 1928 issued a memorandum to confirm that the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs belonged to Ras al-Khaimah while Abu Musa belonged to Sharjah .
The fact that Qawasin had title to the three Islands during the 1929-1930 negotiations between Iran and Britain confirmed the weakness of Irans claims of ownership over the islands. The Anglo-Iranian treaty which was signed affirmed that the three Islands (Abu Musa and the Tunbs) would remain under Arab territories and Iran would maintain the title to Island of Sirri . Irans desire to have control over the island motivated it to propose an offer to buy the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. This was strongly rejected by the rulers of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah.
This was followed by Irans proposal to lease the two islands for a period of 50 years. The pressure by British officials on the ruler of Ras al-Khaimah to accept the offer on conditions that Iran refrain from inspecting Arab boats and ships as well as stop issuing order to them failed. This led the failure of Iran attempts to exercise sovereignty on the islands. Sharjahs sovereignty over Abu Musa led to the issuing of red oxide concessions to the Golden Valley Ochre &Oxide Company in 1935. On the other hand, Ras al-Khaimah gave an oil exploration concession to the Union Oil in 1964.
The failure by Iran to annex Bahrain due to a United Nations endorsement of Bahrains independence in 1970 resulted to Irans emphatic claims to the three islands once again. Iran threatened to occupy the islands by force. To address the issue, intensive talks between Iran and the emirates of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah were held in 1970 and 1971. The talks did not prevent Iran from expressing its intentions to occupy the Islands by force. Pressure by Iran and Britain to have the rulers of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah hand over the islands to Iran peacefully did not succeed.
This move aimed at preventing direct military occupation of the islands by Iran in a manner that would deprive the rulers sovereignty over the islands. Irans deadlines and threats that were issued to increase pressure on the rulers were unsuccessful. On 30 November 1971, Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that allowed Iran to land on Northern part of Abu Musa. When Ras al-Khaimah rejected Irans concession to a title over Tunbs led to the launch of an offensive by Iran to occupy the islands.
The offensive had some service men and civilians killed, a primary school and a police station, demolished and the citizens of the Greater Tunbs evicted. Since 1971 when it occupied the Tunbs, Iran has continued to claim ownership over the three islands despite the fact that it has failed to produce legal justification of its occupation under the international law. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates has continually asserted that it has sovereignty over the islands . Current situation on the UAE-Iran dispute Since 1971, Iran and UAE have continually been engaged in the dispute over three Islands .
After Irans occupation of the Tunbs, the UAE tried to win the title to the islands by resolving the dispute according to the international customs and laws. The UAE requested for assistance from the United Nations Security council to have the dispute solved peacefully. However, Iran continued to violate the MOU in relation to governance in Abu Musa and international boundaries in relation to the Tunbs. Iran had adopted an imperial arrogance approach during Shahs reign and since 1980s, it continued to violate the MOU.
Currently, Iran considers the Tunbs to be part of its territory and considers this issue undebatable . However, Iran agrees that negotiations over Abu Musa can be conducted based on an MOU that will ensure UAE sovereignty over the island does not compromise Irans economic, security and strategic interests in the Gulf region. The rights of sovereignty or ownership of the Abu Musa and the two Tunbs was transferred from the emirates of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah to the Federal state of the United Arab Emirates on 2 December 1971.
The Arab states under the British protectorate were referred to as trucial states . The UAE constitution states clearly that the federation exercises sovereignty over all waters and lands that are encompassed by the international borders of the emirates. . This includes the three islands of Abu Musa and the two Tunbs. Ownership claims by UAE over the three Islands is considered to be based on historical events, legal documents and the actual exercise of territorial sovereignty .
Scholars of the international law argue that the border treaties provide for succession where the obligations and rights are passed from the predecessor to the successor state in accordance with the Article 4 of 1969 Vienna convention on the law of treaties . Furthermore, the highest federal authority of the UAE, the supreme council of the UAE has declared that the agreements which were concluded by the individual emirates with the neighboring states are believed to be agreements between the UAE and the neighboring states.
The UAE-Iran dispute over the legal status of the islands has continued to affect UAE-Iran diplomatic relations . In addition, the dispute strains the relationship between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council Members (Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). These nations support UAE claims of ownership. For instance, in 2008, there was tension between Iran and the GCC over this long-standing issue. The UAE supports regional cooperation in the region hence it has managed to win the support of some of its neighbors over the issue.
Although the UAE has recommended that the case be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Iran objects this measure . Britain which played a major role in the Gulf region and efforts to solve the UAE-Iran dispute would be expected to be involved in the case if it was taken to the ICJ. Iran criticizes the involvement of a third party in resolving the dispute hence it rejects the UAEs request to have the dispute resolved at the international court of justice in the Hague. The UAE demands that the three Islands which were seized by Iran form UAE in 1971 be returned back .
In 1992, Iran declared sovereignty over the three islands and had foreigners who run UAE sponsored school and several organizations in Abu Musa expelled from the Island. Irans political and economic influence in the region makes it a hegemonic power . Over the years, Iran has been making efforts to increase its military presence on the Island of Abu Musa by building an airport on the island and stationing troops on the Island. This indicates that Iran intends to maintain rightful ownership of the Island. For Iran, the Islands are strategically positioned to allow interdictions and observations of the Strait of Hormuz.
This is believed to offer Iran land support to support stations boats, military troops and radars in the region. Irans opening a naval base in the Strait Hormuz and reluctance to resolve the territorial dispute confirms it political influence in the region. There is no doubt that the islands have economic and geopolitical significance to Iran . For example, during the 53rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Zayed Al Nahayan stated that the UAE is still concerned about the continued occupation of Iran on the three islands .
The UAE has been making efforts to resolve the dispute in a peacefully, either through bilateral talks of the ICJ . The UAE sovereignty over the three islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs relate to acquiescence and recognition due to the fact that the UAE has maintained possession of the islands for a long time. This has been recognized by Britain which has made a declaration that it recognizes the title of the Qawasin to the islands.
As a result, Irans occupation of the Tunbs is viewed by the UAE to be a violation of the principles of border issues in the international law and inviolability of the states territorial integrity which are vital in international relations. The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed when speaking during the Federal National Council recently stated that the occupation of the three Islands by Iran is painful to many UAE nationals and compared Irans occupation on the three Islands to the occupation of Palestinians territories by Israel.
A Memorandum of Understanding that governs the status of Abu Musa does not define the status of the island. Although the bilateral agreement between UAE and Iran promotes understanding between the two, the Iranian government sees the agreement to be a temporary measure that postpones the restoration of Irans sovereignty over the Abu Musa . The dispute is considered to have negative impact on the relations between UAE and Iran .
Efforts by other countries such as Turkey in resolving the dispute are expected to improve relations between the UAE and Iran . Turkey is expected to play a vital rile in talks between Iran and UAE in future . For instance, when speaking during the Parliamentary Union of the Islamic Conference, Bahaeddine Jabaji supported Turkeys role in resolving the dispute.