x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Focus:Abu Musa: island in the spotlight

Sunday Focus The disputed island's strategic importance is of increasing concern to energy and security experts.

A closeup of the northern tip of the island shows what Jane's Defence weekly says appears to be a large underground storage facility that could house missile launchers.
A closeup of the northern tip of the island shows what Jane's Defence weekly says appears to be a large underground storage facility that could house missile launchers.

Barely four kilometres in diameter, if it could be overlain onto Abu Dhabi the island of Abu Musa would fit comfortably between the Corniche and 15th Street. Yet over the past 37 years this remote outpost of the UAE, just 60 kilometres off the coast of Umm al Qaiwain, has attained a significance out of all proportion to its size, thanks to its symbolic location as a potential cork in the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit of 20 per cent of the world's oil.

On the evening of Nov 30 1971, the island, along with the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, was seized by pre-revolutionary Iran, just two days before the handover of the territories of the British-run "Trucial states" to the fledging UAE. Over the years, the UAE has consistently sought a peaceful resolution to the question of ownership of the islands, periodically urging Iran to submit to arbitration by the International Court of Justice. Recently, however, the tempo of the diplomatic dance has increased and the latest episode of the long-running island soap opera is being played out against the geopolitical backdrop of Tehran's regional ambitions, rising tensions over its suspected nuclear weapons programme and increased concern over the world's oil supplies.

At a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran on July 29, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, implored his hosts to respond to the Emirates' "peaceful initiatives" and settle the dispute over the island. For five days there was no reaction. But on Aug 4, in a statement that on the face of it had no direct bearing on the issue, Gen Mohammed Ali Jafari of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said Iran now possessed a deadly new weapon and could easily choke off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. "The enemy's ships," he said, "would not be safe within the range of 300 kilometres."

Remarks that came out of Tehran a few days later raised diplomatic eyebrows even higher. In an echo of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary rhetoric from 30 years ago, Iranian minister Manouchehr Mohammadi predicted a looming crisis of instability in the Gulf. It was, he reportedly said in a speech, a "crisis of legitimacy of the monarchies and traditional systems, which considering current circumstances, cannot go on living".

The Arab world was quick to respond. On Aug 7, the GCC expressed its "deep dismay and concern", condemning the statement as "hostile and dangerous", but Iran's next move followed swiftly - and was less than conciliatory. On Aug 11, 13 days after Dr Gargash had made his appeal in Tehran, he finally got an Iranian answer - of sorts. In a news item on national TV, Iran said it had constructed two small offices on Abu Musa. The purpose of the buildings, if indeed they even exist, was of little significance, but the message was plain: Iran had no intention of relinquishing its hold on the island.

The news drew a series of responses from the UAE and the rest of the Arab world. On Aug 14 the Emirates handed a formal protest note to the Iranian chargé d'affaires; two days later the Gulf Co-operation Council made plain that it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the UAE, condemning Iran's "striking violation and illegitimate procedure" against a sovereign state. The following day the Arab League followed suit.

On Aug 28, the UAE took the issue to the United Nations, delivering a formal letter of protest to the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, condemning Iran's recent actions over Abu Musa as "illegitimate". Five days later, at a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the GCC foreign ministers again backed the UAE's stance. This time Iran's response was specific - and adamant. Hassan Qashqavi, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, rejected the GCC statement as "interfering in Iran's internal affairs". All his country's measures regarding Abu Musa were "completely legal and in accordance with Iran's rights of governing this Iranian island", he said, adding that the Arabian Gulf nations should be "realistic".

Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, says the origin of the strategic significance of the islands for Iran lies in the pre-revolutionary era, when Britain was bringing to an end a military presence in the Gulf that dated from the early 19th century and the United States, exhausted by the war in Vietnam, was also looking to minimise its commitments in the region. At the end of 1970, just months before the formation of the UAE, the resulting uncertainty presented the Shah with an unprecedented opportunity for territorial expansion.

"The islands were occupied for strategic reasons," says Dr Alani. "The Shah had a vision of Iran as a regional superpower that would control the entire Gulf." Iranian forces seized control of the two Tunbs and Abu Musa from their then Qassimi rulers, who came to govern the emirates of Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah upon the creation of the UAE federation. While the invasion of the Tunbs was a surprise attack of pure and blatant aggression, says Dr Alani, the Qassimis were "basically forced ... to share administration" of Abu Musa with the Shah. Since then, the UAE has taken up the claim to ownership of the islands.

For the first two decades of occupation, Iran appeared to do little to fortify the islands or interfere with the lives of their inhabitants, says Stephen Blackwell, a security analyst in the UAE. The Shah and the Islamic leaders who deposed him conducted an essentially "hands-off" policy of "benign coexistence". "The Iranians planted the flag," he said, "but they weren't really interested in clamping down or imposing themselves on the local inhabitants."

All that changed, however, following eight years of bloodletting with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the dictator's surprise invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which prompted a major adjustment in Iran's perception of its regional security, compounded by the West's intervention and subsequent permanent presence in the Gulf region of substantial western forces. Alarmed by the rapid build-up of American firepower, says Dr Blackwell, Iran hardened its presence, installing more weaponry and restricting access to the islands. In April 1992, several hundred Arabs were reportedly expelled from Abu Musa - including primary school teachers, health workers and families - effectively severing any last vestige of symbolic "joint" administrative control.

According to Globalsecurity.org, by March 1995 the island was garrisoned by troops of the IRGC, which remains the occupying force. That same month, William Perry, the US Secretary of Defence, said Iran had installed Chinese Silkworm anti-ship missiles on the island. If true, the missiles, with a range of some 75 kilometres, pose a threat to all ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz: Abu Musa is 70km from the Iranian mainland and 60km from the UAE shoreline.

In 2000, Jane's Defence Weekly analysed specialist satellite images of the island and found evidence of military infrastructure which is now clearly visible on Google Earth. In the extreme north of the almost triangular island can be seen what Jane's described as "revetments tunneled in a circle around a large hill", suggesting a sizeable "underground storage facility" where "suspected anti-ship missile launchers and associated radar could be housed until needed".

Experts differ as to the real military significance of the island. Anthony H Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes Abu Musa and the Tunbs serve a more psychological than strategic purpose for the Iranians, who have plenty of anti-ship weaponry deployed on various other islands and along the Iranian shoreline. "You have to remember that it's not just the islands," Mr Cordesman said. "One of the problems here is that people keep assuming that strategically you have to break a bottle at its neck - you don't."

Nevertheless, this is psychology reinforced with hardware. The radar-guided Silkworm, though ageing, could still pose a threat. It was used by both sides in the Iraq-Iran war and on Feb 25 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, Iraq fired two of the missiles at the USS Missouri off Kuwait. One missed, perhaps distracted by anti-radar chaff, and the other was intercepted by a Sea Dart missile launched by the British destroyer HMS Gloucester. Striking an unprotected oil tanker, however, might be altogether less testing.

Dr Alani, for one, is in no doubt that Abu Musa and the Tunbs "can play a major role in controlling navigation throughout the entire Gulf, so they obviously serve a military value and a strategic value". The US intelligence establishment thinks so too, and has claimed that Iranian forces could make good on the country's threats to choke off the flow of Gulf oil. In 2005, Vice Adm Lowell E Jacoby of the Defence Intelligence Agency told the Senate that Iran could "stem the flow of oil from the Gulf for brief periods by employing a layered force of diesel-powered Kilo submarines, missile patrol boats, naval mines and sea and shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles".

In June, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a focus document, Energy in danger: Iran, oil and the West, that identified the threat posed by Abu Musa in particular and to the flow of oil in general. "Military experts estimate clearing and securing the strait for maritime traffic in the wake of an Iranian attempt to disrupt shipping there could take a month or more," wrote the report's author, Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at the Washington Institute.

The implications for countries such as the UAE are clear. Such disruption, says Henderson, "would make previous major world oil supply disruptions" - such as the Six Day War in 1967, the Arab oil embargo of 1974 and the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran - "pale in comparison". Last month, it emerged that Kuwait was working on plans to stockpile oil overseas as a hedge against disruption in the Gulf.

In this light, Abu Musa is more than just a few square kilometres of land that should rightfully be returned to the UAE. It is a symbol of the growing tensions that threaten the stability of the Gulf and a reminder of the risks to the region of precipitous action, by or against Iran. hnaylor@thenational.ae jgornall@thenational.ae