In the fall of 1971, when Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf after more than a century of being the dominant power there, outside observers watched with interest as important aspects of an international drama played out. The seven Trucial States, which had been under a British protectorate, formed a new and completely independent federal state that called itself the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But it was not absolutely clear during the months leading up to final British departure in November 1971 that Bahrain and Qatar would turn down Shaikh Zayid’s invitation to join that federation. Nor was it clear that Ras al Khaimah would agree to join the union, since its ruler, the wily Shaikh Saqr, opted to stay out for the first few months. Most interesting to outside observers was what Iran might do as Britain left, since it was assumed that the shah might try to fill the anticipated “power vacuum,” for example, by moving into Bahrain, where a large population of Shiite coreligionists were assumed to be sympathetic to association with Tehran.
As the drama of the birth of the UAE unfolded, these major questions overshadowed another territorial issue that went largely unnoticed by the outside world, except for a few in leadership positions in London, Tehran and the palaces of the UAE. This was the shah’s decision to take over three small islands in the middle of the Persian Gulf: Abu Musa and the greater and lesser Tunbs. The islands were inhabited by Arabs and regarded unequivocally by the leaders of the new UAE to be part of their territory.
That the Iranian takeover of these three small islands took place with British acquiescence attracted some attention by those watching these events. Many assumed that London decided to appease the shah’s appetite for Bahrain (to which he had made a claim but which he allowed to become independent as Britain left) by allowing him to take over the three small islands. They had much less political and economic significance, although they were strategically placed in the middle of the Gulf through which so much of the world’s oil passed every day. But the islands’ takeover evoked protests only from leaders in the newly minted UAE; most of the world seemed not to notice this detail at all.
Since 1971, however, ownership and control of these three islands has periodically become an international political issue that has not only troubled bilateral relations between the UAE and Iran, but has also involved the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League and the United Nations. Even today, after 35 years, ownership remains in dispute, and the problem finds its way into international discussions.
Thomas Mattair, an American political scientist, has written a very detailed and carefully researched study and analysis of the issue that will help readers understand its local and international implications. Not everyone will want to read its 440 pages of text and 111 pages of footnotes. But different kinds of readers will find in these pages some very useful material relevant to their particular interests.
Readers with an interest in the legal aspects of territorial disputes, which are numerous and important in the Middle East, will find Mattair’s book an excellent summary of the legal issues surrounding Abu Musa and the Tunbs. Iranian and UAE leaders, diplomats and lawyers have argued opposite sides of the question of which country has legal title to the islands, and Mattair reviews those arguments and their merits. He gives away his conclusion in the title of the book by referring to them as “The three Occupied UAE Islands,” coming down clearly on the side of the UAE, which he argues has the overwhelming weight of legal right to claim sovereignty. Skeptics may wonder whether this is an unbiased conclusion, since the book was published by a UAE think tank funded in large part by the UAE authorities. And it is true that the author, who worked at that think tank for several years on this study, was apparently unable to interview Iranian officials for it. Nevertheless, his legal analysis is well documented, and to this reviewer, it is an entirely persuasive argument that the UAE has the overwhelming weight of evidence on the side of its claim to sovereignty over all three islands.
One sticking point in the legal debate is the existence of a Memorandum of Understanding that the ruler of Sharjah signed with Iran on the eve of UAE independence in 1971, agreeing that Abu Musa would be jointly administered with each side in effect controlling half of the island. But Mattair argues convincingly that this MOU is invalid because it was signed under duress, and, in any case, Iran has violated it in practice by expanding Iranian control over most of that island. He points out the irony of Iran’s criticizing Israel for forcing the Arab inhabitants of Palestine out in order to occupy that land, when Iran itself ignored the rights of the Arab occupants of these islands.
Beyond the legal issues, readers interested in the broader regional and international implications of the islands dispute will find plenty of interesting historic detail and insightful analysis in Mattair’s book. The book does not focus narrowly on these three tiny islands to the exclusion of wider questions of the relations between states, including how smaller states such as the UAE deal with powerful neighbors, and what happens when superpowers like the United States get involved. In this way, he has contributed to our understanding of the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics, of U.S. policy toward the region, and of some of the basic principles of statecraft.
On the relationship between the UAE and Iran, the author describes in detail how the UAE leadership tried to rectify what it believed to be a clear violation of its sovereignty, without so provoking Iran that it would lose more than it gained in the process. The islands have little intrinsic economic value, despite the existence of an oil field nearby, and their land area is relatively tiny (12, 10 and 2 square kilometers, respectively). However, they occupy an important strategic position in the middle of the Gulf because they are close to rich oil fields on both sides, and to Gulf shipping lanes. Moreover, they have symbolic value to both sides. The UAE had to walk a fine line, nevertheless, defending its rights but being prudent in its demands.
The emirate of Ras al Khaimah had the historic legal claim to the two Tunbs and the emirate of Sharjah had the historic legal claim to Abu Musa, but when the UAE federal government was formed, it took over responsibility for making the case on all three islands with Iran. Shaikh Zayid, president of the UAE, known at home and abroad for his wise handling of difficult matters by persuasion and cooperation, had his ministers and diplomats lodge formal protests from the beginning in 1971 against Iran’s occupation of the three islands, but he made no threats and apparently did not even consider trying to use force to retake them.
Yet, in 1992, the UAE authorities became alarmed when Iran tried to expand its authority over Abu Musa by demanding that people coming from the UAE to work on the UAE side of the island have Iranian visas. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Iran had busily worked to establish military fortifications on Abu Musa even on the UAE side of the island, setting up sites there for surface-to-surface and Silkworm anti-ship missiles. The UAE had become concerned about this but grudgingly tolerated it as a byproduct of the war. Then, however, when Iran imposed a new visa rule in 1992, this was the most serious violation so far of the 1971 MOU. Since it came when Iran was not at war, the UAE leadership regarded it as an ominous sign of new Iranian hostility. In itself, this was a small matter on a small island, but Shaikh Zayed took it seriously because it symbolized the escalation of a longstanding unresolved dispute. The UAE promptly sought support from the Gulf Cooperation Council (its five Arab neighbors on the Gulf), the Arab League and the United Nations. These organizations endorsed the UAE’s protest and publicly supported its position on the three islands.
Although Iran ignored this move, from then on, the UAE regularly and periodically raised the issue in various international fora, calling for a peaceful resolution of the dispute through negotiations or arbitration. Iran eventually agreed to bilateral talks on the issue but consistently refused to accept UAE demands that it recognize UAE sovereignty over the islands. Abu Dhabi to this day continues to make its case in public and in private, and continues to enjoy widespread international support for it, but Iran refuses to budge, and the status quo of 1992 remains. Iran has not been swayed by the weight of legal argument or international opinion. There seems little more the UAE can do. In other respects, however, UAE interests have not been seriously harmed by the issue.
The author of this book also devotes considerable attention to the role of the United States and other outside powers as their policies impinge on Abu Musa and the Tunbs. In doing so, he has shed light on some aspects of American policy that are important quite apart from the narrow islands issue. He recounts in detail several clashes between United States and Iranian military forces in 1987 and 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War that did not lead to a wider war between the two. In light of the current US-Iranian confrontation, these are important to remember. The U.S. Navy, for example, captured an Iranian ship laying mines in the Gulf, posing a threat to neutral commercial shipping; then four Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats fired on U.S. helicopters and were sunk or captured by the United States. When Iranian Silkworm missiles hit a U.S.-flagged tanker, American destroyers responded by shelling two Iranian oil platforms; a few weeks later, several Revolutionary Guard boats attacked another U.S.-flagged tanker. When a U.S. Navy frigate hit an Iranian mine and was damaged, the United States attacked an Iranian patrol boat and two more Iranian oil platforms. Iran responded by firing on a U.S. supply ship and helicopter, for which the United States attacked and sank an Iranian frigate.
At each step in these tit-for-tat military encounters, policy makers in Washington considered how far to go in using force. America was not at war with Iran and repeatedly declared that it did not want to get involved in this local (Iran-Iraq) conflict. Some senior officials in Washington were urging President Reagan to get tougher on Iran, but he decided on a policy of restraint, and, as we found out later, he even sought a diplomatic opening with Iran (the Iran-contra affair).
Coming back to Abu Musa and the Tunbs, the author points out quite correctly that while the U.S. government has stated publicly that the UAE “has a strong claim to the islands,” and it has supported the UAE call for a peaceful resolution of the dispute, Washington has not gone further than that in taking sides. He notes that after the UAE in 1992 became alarmed about Iranian moves on Abu Musa, it concluded military agreements with the United States and others including the UK and France, shoring up its alliances in the face of a perceived Iranian threat. The author suggests (p. 440) that the United States press the UK to mediate a settlement of the dispute, but London has been as reluctant as Washington to get into the middle of this particular controversy.
The author concludes his book by commenting on the contemporary situation that the Bush administration might consider Iranian WMD sites as targets for a preemptive military strike. He warns that Iran could retaliate by using its installations on Abu Musa and elsewhere to attack American and friendly shipping in the Gulf.
Dr. Mattair’s research has been very thorough, his documentation careful and his analyses generally very sound. This book fills a particular gap that has existed in studies of the Gulf, and it adds to studies of territorial disputes in general. Although the subject is rather narrow, and, as he complains, even American officials dealing with policy in the Middle East do not seem to know much of anything about Abu Musa and the Tunbs, he has contributed an accurate rendering of the record and in the process illuminated some important points of international law and politics.