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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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Dispute resumes between Iran and United Arab Emirates over island of Abu Musa

(3 May 2012)

An 11 April 2012 visit by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the island of Abu Musa, the first visit by a head of state since Iran took control of the island 41 years ago, has reignited a dispute with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), including the nearby islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb, located in the Strait of Hormuz. This was followed by a high-profile Iranian parliamentary delegation visit to the islands on 29 April as part of Iran’s National Day of the Persian Gulf. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard have told media sources that personnel and military hardware have also recently been moved to the island. Iran’s army commander, Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourastan was quoted as saying “Iran has had sovereignty over these islands since old times and the Islamic republic will defend this right with full force.”

The UAE has responded by stating that these actions constitute a violation of their sovereignty over the islands, which includes claims to territorial sea, airspace, continental shelf and exclusive economic zone rights around the islands. Meanwhile, the military alliance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), or Peninsula Shield Force, conducted military drills from 29-30 April dubbed the ‘Islands of Loyalty’ operation. Including forces from several Gulf states as well as participation of US warplanes, the operation was clearly in response to Iran’s recent actions on the islands and was described as being a “test [of] the harmony and coordination among ground, air and naval forces and their readiness and abilities to carry out special, limited and major missions along coasts and islands within the territorial waters in light of the current developments.”

In 1971 the island of Abu Musa, which has approximately 2000 inhabitants and is four square miles in size, was divided between Iran and the emirate of Sharjah in a memorandum of understanding (MoU), shortly before the United Kingdom ended its protectorate role in the UAE. The MoU provided for joint administration on the islands, and a division of resources. This was intended to prevent Iran from invading the island following its occupation of the smaller Greater and Lesser Tunb islands. Iran holds that its sovereignty over the three islands predates the 1908 British occupation and they remain part of its territory. Nine years after the MoU, the UAE appealed to the United Nations Security Council with its claim over the islands, however this was rejected.

Following the recent high level visits to islands, the UAE removed its ambassador from Tehran. In response, it has been reported that Iran is considering renaming the street in which the UAE embassy is located in Tehran to Abu Musa street. Iran has stated that its current plans for Abu Musa include developing a tourist resort on the island. The UAE appears to have garnered support from the Council of Arab Leagues and the GCC, as well as from countries such as the U.S., France and Italy, who have condemned the visits by Iranian officials and the president. The UAE has stated it will appeal to the International Court of Justice if it cannot peaceably resolve the dispute with Iran.

Sources: ‘A tiny island is where Iran makes a stand’, Thomas Erdbrink, New York Times, 30 April 2012; ‘Iran: dispute over island grows’, Rick Gladstone, New York Times, 20 April 2012; ‘Iran sends more politicians to disputed islands’, Daniel Shane, Arabian Business, 29 April 2012; ‘Arab League pledges support for UAE in island dispute’, BBC Monitoring Middle East, 29 April 2012