x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Iranian claims to disputed islands whitewash history

Iran's overreach on Abu Musa last week parallels past Persian attempts to project power across the Gulf. Those previous attempts failed, lessons from history Iran should remember now.

On Tuesday, ministers from the six GCC states met in Doha to discuss the recent visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the UAE island of Abu Musa. Not surprisingly, the other five GCC members expressed agreement with the deep concern expressed by the UAE at the visit.

As UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed has noted, the visit was not just unacceptable and provocative, but was a deliberate breach of an understanding reached last year between Abu Dhabi and Tehran that there would be a concerted attempt by both sides to take the heat out of the issue of the islands.

Mr Ahmadinejad's visit was the first to Abu Musa by any Iranian leader since Iranian troops landed on the island shortly before the establishment of the UAE a little over 40 years ago. Predictably, the Iranian response to the perfectly-justified complaints from the UAE has been bombastic and aggressive, with the Iranian media quoting a slew of officials criticising the UAE and stating that Abu Musa and the other two islands, Greater and Lesser Tunbs, have historically been part of Iranian territory, apart from the first seven decades of the 20th Century.

There was even the ludicrous suggestion, from one senior Iranian parliamentarian, that somehow Britain had been responsible for stirring up the controversy, as if the UAE, which has maintained its legitimate claim to the islands ever since they were occupied by the forces of the late Shah, was incapable of determining its own views about its own territory.

For the sake of accuracy in the historical record, let me repeat a few basic facts.

On the nights of November 30 and December 1, 1971, a day before the formation of the UAE - and having failed to bribe the then-Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah to reach an agreement to sell Greater and Lesser Tunbs to Iran - the Shah ordered in his troops.

As has been reported in moving testimony in articles in The National, the poorly-armed police on the islands were overwhelmed, with several being killed. If that's not a breach of the United Nations' charter - which holds that the acquisition of territory by force is illegal - I don't know what is.

In the case of Abu Musa, the then-Ruler of Sharjah, under heavy pressure from the United Kingdom, agreed, with extreme reluctance, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran to share the island, without in any way agreeing to any relinquishment of sovereignty.

An agreement under duress, as any lawyer will tell you, is not worth the paper it is printed on. Nonetheless, Sharjah, and then the UAE, endeavoured to make the agreement work, despite the Iranian military aggression against the Tunbs.

Over the years, successive governments in Iran have continually breached the terms of that agreement, despite protests from the UAE. A court of law might well rule that such actions rendered the original MOU no longer valid.

Why was it, 40 years ago, that Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah were so convinced of their legal title to the islands? And why is it that, in the years since the establishment of the federation, the UAE has consistently called for the return of the three islands?

These islands were once part of the Arab-ruled Kingdom of Hormuz, and have been part of the dominions of the Al Qasimi family - rulers of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah - for over 250 years. This control pre-dated the emergence of the dynasty of the late Shah, or those who succeeded him. Indeed, the Al Qasimi also ruled much of the southern Iranian coast, including the port of Bander Lingeh, until 1886, as well as islands like Sirri, until 1887, before they were dispossessed.

Even then, the occupants of those areas remained Arab - by origin, by language and by culture - closely related to the people on this side of the Gulf. That much is evident from unchallengeable historical documents. Not until 1903 did Iran even make a claim to Abu Musa and the Tunbs.

The UAE and Iran have a markedly different approach to the issue of the islands. The UAE side has historic evidence of ownership. Iran invaded and occupied the Tunbs after it had tried and failed to buy them. Having bullied Sharjah into the unequal 1971 memorandum on Abu Musa, Iran has consistently broken the terms of that agreement ever since. The UAE, while re-affirming its legitimate claim in accordance with the principles of the UN charter, has offered to hold talks, or to take the issue to the International Court of Justice for arbitration, binding itself to accept the result.

Iran has refused to enter into meaningful negotiations, has rejected a reference to the ICJ and, rather than displaying any sign of willingness to seek a way of resolving the issue, seeks to re-write history while offering up insults to the injured party.

The history of the Gulf region provides numerous examples of the way in which successive rulers in Persia, now Iran, aspired to project their power across the waterway that divides them from the Arabian peninsula. And in each case - from the Achaemenids over 2,000 years ago to the Sassanids, whose empire was defeated and overrun by the Arab armies of the early Muslim Caliphate; from the Safavids, whose state descended into utter anarchy at around the time that the Al Qasimi began to rule along the southern Iranian coastline and in the northern emirates, to the last Shah - those aspirations, and empires, all eventually came to naught.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from that.


Peter Hellyer is a social commentator specialising in Emirati heritage and culture