Abu Musa and the Tumbs:
Because of The Estimate's recent hiatus during your Editor's travel (See the announcement), Part I of this Dossier appeared in the issue of June 15, 2001. This is the conclusion.
Since Iran's occupation of the three islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tumb in 1971 (See Part I), the dispute has been a persisting one, though one which largely was ignored (outside of the United Arab Emirates) during most of the 1970s. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war which broke out in 1980 changed that, and the islands became a broader issue in the Gulf region and the Arab world.
In general, the status quo has prevailed except for the events of 1992, to be discussed below, when Iran took greater control over Abu Musa. The UAE has consistently called for international involvement in the issue and for referral to the International Court of Justice, but Iran has steadfastly resisted any change in its de facto control of the islands.
While the islands issue is not yet quite the last outstanding Gulf territorial dispute, it is the most intractable. While Iran has from time to time been willing to discuss the issue (and that only on occasion), it has been unwilling to concede sovereignty in any degree. The exact status of the joint agreement with Sharja, made in 1971, over control of Abu Musa has remained somewhat ambiguous since the Iranian moves of 1992, though Iran has not formally abrogated it.
The Arab world at least nominally supports the Emirates claim, with both the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League regularly backing the UAE. Sometimes the Emirates has found its allies a bit too eager to improve ties with Iran without any progress on the islands it openly criticized Saudi Arabia for its hastiness in imrproving ties with Tehran a few years ago but for all the GCC states the Arab identity of the islands has become accepted dogma.
As for the rest of the world, there has been a gradual evolution. The United States and Britain were widely believed in the Gulf to have acquiesced in the Iranian takeover in 1971, seeing Iran as a stable and pro-Western regime in an uncertain and changing region. The Iranian Revolution changed the equation, however, and by the 1990s the West was concerned about the Iranian military buildup on Abu Musa and its potential threat to Gulf tanker traffic.
But the islands do not seem to be a high priority in Western security planners' scenarios. Since they are effectively controlled by Iran, the only likely shift in the status quo would be a UAE effort to seize them by force, and given the present balance of forces in the region, that is highly unlikely. Over a longer period such a scenario might occur if a stronger Arab ally a resurgent Iraq for example, or a Saudi Arabia with a different force structure from that at present proved willing to challenge Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq made recovery of the islands one of its stated war aims, and this led to strong UAE support for Iraq, but nothing of course came of it.
So the islands dispute remains, the one intractable outstanding territorial dispute in the Gulf, and the one that shows the least likelihood of imminent resolution.
As noted in Part I of this Dossier, the United Kingdom had already made clear to the future United Arab Emirates that it was not about to intervene militarily to protect the claims by Sharja and Ras al-Khaima to the islands at the time of its withdrawal from east of Suez in 1971. Sharja cut the best deal it could get with Iran an agreement to accept an Iranian presence on Abu Musa with neither side yielding its claim to total sovereignty while Ras al-Khaima refused to deal and Iran simply occupied the Tumbs.
While Britain and the United States both criticized the Iranian occupation, neither was prepared to act in any way, and there is some reason to credit the widespread belief in the Gulf that the two powers were not that sorry to see a supposedly dependable and pro-Western Iran occupy islands in a crucial location in mid-Gulf, when many doubted the longterm survivability of the tribal monarchies of the Arab Gulf states.
It was a different world in 1971, a world of inexpensive oil and a powerful Iran under a Shah determined to make Iran the major regional power. The newly independent states of the Arab Gulf shared the peninsula with Marxist-Leninist South Yemen, and Oman was in the midst of combating a bloody and lengthy insurgency in Dhofar one that eventually took Iranian military assistance to defeat. In an era when radical Palestinians had been carrying out hijackings and other attacks across the region (Black September of 1970 had been the year before), the Shah was fond of portraying a Gulf in which a radical, Aden-style regime took over the smaller Gulf states and the islands controlling Gulf tanker traffic came under radical control. That the region evolved in a very different direction is obvious now, but there were those at the time who thought that Iran might be the more reliable ally in controlling the islands.
The oil price revolution of 1973 and after of course transformed the Arab Gulf in ways that few foresaw in 1971. Throughout the 1970s, however, there was little incentive for the outside world to object to the Iranian occupation of the islands: the Emirates, of course, protested loudly and regularly, but Iran was a crucial Western ally, one of the "twin pillars" of US policy in the Gulf (with Saudi Arabia), and so the islands issue receded from view, except in the Emirates.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year, and the Iran-Iraq war which broke out in 1980 turned the region on its head. Suddenly Iran was hostile to the West, Soviet forces were moving into Southwestern Asia, American hostages were being held in Tehran and then, Iran and Iraq began an eight-year war which threatened the oilfields and the tanker lanes.
Iraq, which had long been positioning itself as leader of the Arab Gulf states (a position the others were not willing to concede), announced early in its war with Iran that one of its war aims was the recovery of the "Arab" islands of Abu Musa and the Tumbs from Iran. The Ruler of Ras al-Khaima was quick to openly support Iraq, and the UAE, as well as the other Gulf Arab states, gave moral and financial support to the Iraqis.
Out of this transformed situation came the emergence in 1981 of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), consisting of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman: six hereditary monarchies of varying sizes, all with a common interest in protecting the oil lanes against dangers posed by the war between Iran and Iraq. The preoccupation of Iraq with the war made it possible for the six states to create their own grouping excluding Iraq, which otherwise would surely have demanded a (leading) place at the table. The GCC soon became a strong supporter of its member the UAE in the latter's claim to the islands.
None of this, of course, affected Iran's position. In fact, though the Shah had in part asserted his claim to the islands as his due for dropping Iran's historic claim to Bahrain, revolutionary Iran actually toyed with the idea of reviving the Bahraini claim as well (though it soon backed away from that idea).
There was no major change in the status quo in the years immediately after the Iranian Revolution, almost certainly because, of course, the status quo clearly favored Iran. The next major development came in 1992, and some mysteries still surround those events.
The 1992 Crisis
As 1992 progressed, the UAE's charges became more open, and reports said that Iran had annexed Abu Musa, abrogating the 1971 agreement with Sharja, and taking full control of the island. The UAE clearly considered that Iran had altered the status quo and in effect annexed the island. The Iranians have never acknowledged doing this.
In fact, one of several things that makes the 1992 events hard to fathom is the fact that the two sides still present those events so differently that it is not entirely clear what really did happen. For the UAE, Iran in effect claimed full sovereignty over Abu Musa and though a Sharja presence was never eliminated violated the 1971 agreement.
Iran, however, has never acknowledged doing that. Insofar as its position can be summarized, it is that 1) Abu Musa has always been Iranian and Iran has never diluted its claim to full sovereignty; but 2) it has continued to respect the rights of Sharja citizens as agreed in the 1971 accord, and has only insisted that other Arabs cannot reside on the island without Iranian permission. As for military presence, it considers Abu Musa Iranian territory and does not consider itself barred from deploying defensive weaponry there.
The UAE has, since 1992, essentially complained that Iran has violated the 1971 agreement, but has not forced the issue to the point that Iran might actually bar Sharja citizens permitted on the island under that agreement. Given the amount of heat generated by the islands dispute to this day, it is curiously difficult to get a clear picture of exactly what the status of the Sharja population on the island is. And the sharing of oil revenues agreed to in 1971 apparently continued without interruption.
Given the fact that the two sides disagree about what happened in 1992, it is not surprising that there are several explanations of why whatever it was that happened, happened.
The most obvious clue is the timing: the year after Desert Storm. The United States had moved into the Gulf militarily to an unprecedented degree, and the UAE was one of its major allies in the region, providing ports for the US Navy and, during the war, air bases. In addition the "Damascus Declaration" had committed Egypt and Syria to the defense of the Gulf. Though the Damascus Declaration was never really implemented, it caused some alarm in Tehran at the time.
During the summer of 1992, Iran carried out a number of amphibious exercises in the Gulf and clearly sought to send the message that it did not accept the new US hegemony in the region; at the same time it built up its defenses on Abu Musa.
Thus the likeliest explanation for what seemed to be a shift in the status quo was an Iranian response to the new US position; the fact that Iran denies that it has abrogated or violated the 1971 agreement adds to the complexity of interpreting the 1992 events.
Further fogging the issue were rumors apparently spread by Iran or Iran's supporters suggesting that there was some secret provision in the 1971 agreement providing that Abu Musa would become fully Iranian after 21 years, and that Iran was simply enforcing this secret provision. This is not only denied by the UAE, but makes very little sense: why would Sharja have agreed to such a provision? Nor has Iran ever openly suggested any such agreement: this is one of those will-o'-the-wisp rumors that is impossible to nail down.
Iran's buildup of military force on Abu Musa, however, was not ignored by the United States. From the beginning the US has recused itself from taking any formal position on the sovereignty of the islands, and it did formally criticize the unilateral Iranian action on the Tumbs back in 1971 (though seemingly at the time without much conviction). But the location of Abu Musa between the main tanker channels is militarily critical, and the presence of SAMs and, by some reports, anti-shipping missiles on the island as well could threaten US naval elements in the Gulf. Without openly supporting the UAE claim, the US has supported a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
Since 1992, the UAE, the GCC, and the Arab League have regularly complained about Iran's unwillingness to discuss the islands dispute. On occasion, Iranian Foreign Ministers or lesser diplomats have agreed to talk, but have never had substantive discussions: Iran insists the islands are Iranian, and while claiming that it still respects its 1971 agreement with Sharja (which, as we have seen, is not the way the UAE sees it), also insists there is really nothing to talk about.
More and more, the UAE and the GCC have pressed for involvement by the International Court of Justice (The World Court). But the ICJ generally will only deal with territorial disputes if both sides agree to its jurisdiction. It had never addressed any of the many Gulf territorial disputes until the Bahrain-Qatar dispute, which became its longest case. (On the Court's decision there, see the Dossiers in The Estimate for March 23 and April 6, 2001.) Ironically, the fact that the ICJ did take and decide that case, and that its decision has been accepted by Bahrain and Qatar, may help guarantee that Iran will never agree to go to The Hague. For the Court ultimately decided sovereignty based on British colonial-era boundaries and decisions. And no one disputes the fact that during the British colonial era, Abu Musa and the Tumbs were Arab, and belonged to Sharja and Ras al-Khaima. On the Bahrain-Qatar precedent, Iran would probably lose.
And Iran really has no incentive to seek such a decision. It controls the islands. A UAE military attack against the islands is not credible in the present balance of power in the region, though it might be someday if a strong Arab ally supported the move. In the meantime, the dispute remains the last and most intractable Gulf territorial dispute, but one which continues to affect Iranian-Arab relations across the Gulf, and which simply refuses to go away.
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