Troubled waters in the Gulf
Territorial row over three islands could have major consequences, reports Myra Philp...
Three tiny islands off the coast of the UAE are in the global spotlight as a war of words erupts between Iran and the Emirates over who they belong to.
The trio of islands, which have an estimated population of 2,030, are in the middle of probably the most strategic stretch of water on the planet - the Strait of Hormuz.
Abu Mousa, which is called ‘Gap-sabzu’ or ‘the great green place’ by its mysterious inhabitants, is flanked by two smaller sisters, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in the Arabian Gulf.
Whether the Tunbs have anybody living on them is not clear. Greater Tunb is 10km square and famous for its red soil. There have been suggestions it has an Iranian garrison and naval station as well as a fish storage facility. Lesser Tunb has an area of just 2km and is uninhabited.
The contest over who has sovereignty over the islands has raged for centuries but in the last week it has been used as a political pawn in a bid to throw Iran’s opponents off balance.
Earlier this year President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz as more and more sanctions were heaped on Iran over its nuclear programme. Closing down the Strait would shut down nearly half of the world’s oil supply that passes through it. The Gulf contains about 700 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and more than 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Fuel prices around the world are already spiralling with trade sanctions against Iran and keeping the Strait open is so important for world security that a 25-nation naval force, CTF-152, has been involved in the continuous Operation Enduring Freedom there since 2004.
Against this backdrop and a reduced vote in the recent Iranian elections, Ahmadinejad made a visit to Abu Mousa last week, flexing his muscles for the benefit of his own people and the world, and sparking international outrage.
The UAE’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said the “occupation” of the islands by Iran could affect “international security and peace”, adding: “It is with regret that a Muslim and
neighbour country with civilisation and traditions behaves in such a manner.
“It is supposed to behave rationally and not to project its internal concerns abroad. In this case, consequences can be dangerous.” He added: “This visit will not change the legal status of these islands which are part and parcel of the UAE national soil.”
Unperturbed, Ahmadinejad fired back this week that Iran is “ready to protect its existence and sovereignty”, although it did not refer directly to the UAE.
Meanwhile, diplomats have been recalled from Tehran and a friendly football match between the UAE and Iran was called off.
The UAE has also lodged a protest with the United Nations and an extraordinary meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council was convened on Tuesday, which condemned Iran and pledged “full support to the UAE”.
Pan-Arab government speaker Ali Salem Al Dakbasi said: “If Iran has historical rights to the three UAE islands, why wouldn’t it accept arbitration by the international law and the referral of the whole issue to international Court of Justice?”
Dr Theodore Karasik, from the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said the timing of the visit was Ahmadinejad’s way of showing his people and the world he still has power in the wake of recent elections that saw a large number of seats going to his opponents.
He said: “This was to show that Ahmadinejad still has the power and capability to do what he wants and feels is the right thing for the Persian state. It was a message for his supporters and his detractors.
“The international aspect was to send a message to the UAE as well as other Gulf Arab states that Iran holds influence and that was done because of the upcoming talks with the P5+1 (UN Security Council) on Iran’s nuclear energy programme.”
Disputes over the islands have gone on for centuries but became more heated when oil was discovered.
The islands have historically been in the hands of the Portuguese and then the British, who finally handed them over to Sharjah in 1968.
In 1971 Iran and the UAE reportedly agreed sovereignty should stay with the Emirates, but that Iran’s military could stay there. In 1980 the UAE went to the UN with its claim for the islands and in the same year, Saddam Hussein attempted to justify the Iraq-Iran war by saying he wanted to “liberate” the islands.
Iran now claims that because the UK handed over power to Sharjah before it was part of the UAE, the Emirates has no claim. Yesterday, in a bizarre move, an Iranian news agency reported that Iran’s cabinet had voted to turn them into a premier tourist resort.
Karasik said: “This is just posturing. The island is known to be militarised. Saying it could be a tourist destination is more a game of words.”