UAE versus Iran Islands Dispute

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UAE versus Iran: Islands Dispute

Conflict between countries has been taking place for several years, the conflict are most of the time over boundaries or some islands. The UAE and Iran are the examples of such countries that both claim ownership to three islands. The islands are the greater and lesser Tunb, and another island known as Abu Musa. The UAE has for the past few years been claiming that Iran has invaded the Islands that they claim sovereignty to, Iran on the other hand also claim that they have legal rights to occupy the three Islands. The UAE has for a long time tried to hold talks with Iran so as to have the Islands back but they have been successful, thus forcing them to turn to the United Nations Security Council in 1980 but their appeal was rejected. As a result the UAE has turned to the International Court to arbitrate on the issue, but in order to understand how one of the countries came to occupy the Islands that another country also claim to belong to them we have to look at some historical events that brought about the current issue.

Historical Facts

After the Downfall of a State known as Ya’aruba in the city of Oman which was in power for several years from 1624-1741, a power vacuum was created and other states were jostling to fill the vacuum. The Qawasim state which was based in Ra’s al-Khaimah rose up and filled the power vacuum that had been left after the fall of the Ya’aruba state Slowly but steadily the Qawasim State gained more power and wealth come the middle of the 18th century, the state had total control of the Gulf this was as result of it having numerous naval fleets (Qfinance, pg 150).

The Qawasim State was able to wield its authority in some regions in the subcontinent of India, and even as far as the Coast of East Africa. Their power was however mainly intense on the southern part of the gulf. This is where their two major cities Ra’s al-Khaimah and Sharjah were based. As the State gained more power and influence the desire for the state to control even more regions intensified and finally in 1750 a bloc of the Qawasim state migrated towards the north to a place called Lingeh. After settling down the bloc resolved to establish an independent state, which they did. The new state then embarked on a mission to extent their power to the surrounding Islands and some coastal areas in the Gulf (Legrenzi, pg 150).

After the expansion of the second Qawasim State based in Lingeh, the two Qawasim States managed to come up with a power sharing deal. The Lingeh Qawasim took control of the Islands of Hengan, and also Sirri, on the other hand the Qawasim based on the southern coast took control over the islands of the Greater and lesser Tunb, Sir Abu Nu’air as well a the Abu Musa. It should also be noted that the agreement between the two states took place before the year 1835 (Hong, pg 200).

The two states continued wielding their power on all the areas that wee designated being under them. The Qawasim continued to maintain legal and even the sovereignty of the islands unopposed by any other state. The fact that the Qawasim from the South had sovereignty over the three Islands that are in dispute can be seen in a number of occasions (French, pg 200).

In the year 1864 the Qawasim leader from the south was able to send an official message to the British resident telling him that the islands of Sir Abu Nu’air, Abu Musa, Greater and lesser, as well as the Tunbs was legally under his rule. He further stated that the Islands had been ruled by his ancestors and therefore the sovereignty of the islands belonged to them (Hong, pg 210)


To further prove that the Qawasim from the south had legal rights over the Islands any unauthorized activity on any of the islands was met with a protest or use of force. In the year 1871 the people from the Lingeh Qawasim were denied entry by the Sheikh of Southern Qawasim to the islands, this was followed by a protest letter to the leader of the Lingeh Qawasim protesting against the unauthorized access to the island by his people. In his reply the ruler of the Lingeh Qawasim acknowledged that the islands belonged to the southern Qawasim. In 1873 Sheikh Salem bin Sultan who was the leader of the Sharjah Qawasim sent about 50 armed men to the island of Abu Musa to turn away ships belonging to the Lingeh Qawasim that had docked at the island (Craven, pg 200)

The sending away of the ships belonging to the Lingeh Qawasim raised some tensions among the two states, the Lingeh leader even went ahead to claim that the island belonged to them. At the time Britain was the dominant colonial power in the region, tried to mediate. The British government based in India even ordered the Southern Qawasim ruler from the island. In his reply sent to the British on the February of 1873, the leader stated that the 3 islands belonged to the southern Qawasim (Hong, pg 200).

Iran Invasion

The Iranian’s began to wield its power on the northern side of the gulf in the late 19th century. Earlier in the year 1887 the Persian army had Invaded Lingeh and chased away the Qawasim leaders who had been in power for about 125 years. The Persian army continued gaining more land; finally they were able to capture the Sirri islands. After the invasion of the Sirri islands Iran started an ambitious goal of taking over the other islands as well. The international community did not fail to see the ambitions of Iran, the British protested against the invasion while the Qawasim continued to stake claim of the island (Craven, pg 200)


On the 11th march 1888 the British leadership wrote to the Iranian leadership seeking to know why they had raised their flag on the Sirri island and furthermore to bring fourth evidence to prove that they were the rightful owners of the island. The British asked the Iranian government to explain how the islands belonged to them while it was being ruled by the Qawasim. The Iranian government answered the letter on the very same day through the minister for foreign affairs who stated that the strongest evidence of ownership, according to the laws that govern all progressive countries is occupation; this meant that they had forcefully taken over the land and it now belonged to them. In the year 1898 after the discovery of red oxide in the Abu Musa Island the governor at the time gave his consent to about three Arab nationals to start the exploration of the red oxide (Craven, pg 230).

Iran Claims to Abu Musa

After the exploitation of red oxide started in the Abu Musa Island, the Iranian interest on the island increased. In the year 1904 Iran began claiming sovereignty of the island, it sent some representatives to go and hoist the Iranian flag on the island headed by a Belgian. The ruler of Sharjah did not take the attempt to hoist the flag lightly; the British resident also supported the Sharjah leadership. As in the earlier case involving the Sirri Island, the British leadership called upon the Iranian government to bring fourth evidence to shoe they had the sovereignty over the island. After about three months the Iranian government withdrew their claim to the island after failing to prove their allegations (Craven, pg 180).

Another significant event that took place and proved the sovereignty of the Sharjah on the Abu Musa Island is the agreement that took place between the ruler of Sharjah and the government of Britain. In the agreement the leader of Sharjah agreed to construct a light house on the Greater Tunb, while the British government assured the leadership of Sharjah that the sovereignty that had over the land will not be taken away. In 1923 the leader of the Sharjah awarded a five year exploitation of the red oxide to British known as Strick. After the British was awarded the permission to exploit, the Iranian once again protested to the decision by the leader. This was after being silent for a long period (Craven, pg 240).


In 24th August of the year 1928, a memorandum was issued by the British government to state the state that had sovereignty over the islands. The memorandum was issued after the British and the Iranian government came to a verbal agreement on the issue of the islands. The memorandum stated that the two islands namely the Greater and also the lesser Tunbs belongs to the Ra’s al-Khaimah while the Abu Musa belonged to the Sharjah. The memorandum further explained that the leadership of Sharjah had exclusive rights to get the proceeds as a result of the red oxide exploration (Legrenzi, pg 150).

Serious negotiations took place between the British government and the Iranian, from the year 1929- 1930. In the course of the negotiations it was established that the Qawasim had the sovereignty of the three islands. It was also established that the Iranian government had the sovereignty of the Sirri islands. The negotiations were not easy as each country involved in the tussle stood by its ground (Legrenzi, pg 200).

The Iranian’s had offered to withdraw their claim on the Abu Musa only if the islands of the greater and lesser Tunbs would be legally recognized as rightfully theirs. After that attempt failed the Iranian leadership thought of another strategy to own the islands. The Iranian government offered to buy the islands (Greater and lesser Tunbs). The British government presented the offer of the Iranian government to the ruler of Sharjah; the offer however was turned down. The leaders stated vehemently that the Islands were not for sale at any price.

The Iranian government put up another spirited attempt to poses the islands, in October of 1930 after the failed attempts buy the islands in May the Iranian leadership put on the table another offer. Iranian leadership sought to be leased the two islands for an approximately a period of fifty years. This was after the Iranian government failed to claim Bahrain. The Qawasim rejected the new offer, but the Iranian and British governments exerted pressure on the Qawasim leadership. The Qawasim finally agreed to the offer but they put some restrictions in place, which were, the Iranian would stop inspecting ships belonging to Arabs. The Qawasim flag was to remain hoisted on the Island; in the end the agreement was not effected.

In the year 1935 another agreement was signed between the leadership of the Qawasim and the Golden Valley Ochre and Oxide Company Ltd. In the agreement the firm was given consent to exploit the red oxide in the Island of Abu Musa. The firm continued to exploit until the year 1968. The same firm had earlier on the 6th of February of the year 1953 been awarded the exploitation rights in the Tunbs. To further prove that the sovereignty of the Tunbs belonged to the Qawasim leadership. The leader of the Ra’s al-Khaimah gave exploration rights to two firms known as the Union Oil Exploration, and another firm known as the Natural Gas Company (Legrenzi, pg 190).

Iranian Claims and Invasion of the Three Islands

After failing to secure the Island of Bahrain, after the United Nations sanctioned Bahrain’s independence after a referendum conducted in 1970. From 1970- 1971 the British held negotiations between the leadership of Iran and the Qawasim leaders to look into the issue of the three Islands as Iran was threatening to occupy the three Islands (Legrenzi, pg 180).

The negotiations were not fruitful as Iran refused to back down on its threats to forcefully occupy the Islands. The British government however strived and was able to bring the two countries on the negotiating table. On the 30th of November in the year 1971 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Iranian and the Qawasim leadership. The Qawasim leaders agreed that the state of Iran could use the northern part of the Abu Musa Island. The Qawasim however rejected any deal regarding the Tunbs. Frustrated by the Qawasim refusal the Iranian leadership responded by taking over the Islands by use of military force. The offensive resulted in significant damages of some buildings such as a primary school and even a police station. Two service men from Iran and five inhabitants of the Tunb died in the attack. The citizens living in the Island were also expelled. The attack was aggravated further by the decision by Britain to pull out of the gulf by December of the year 1971. The British had occupied the Islands in the 1920s, but because the Qawasim had been ruling the Islands for about two centuries the British decided to give the islands back to the Sharjah which was soon to become part of the United Arab Emirates (Cotula, pg 170).

Iran was not happy with the decision to hand the islands to the Sharjah and protested against the decision saying that they also had historic privileges to the Islands. After the wrangles surfaced the British government brokered a deal between the two states that they will share the resources from the Abu Musa equally. It should however be noted that there was no deal that was reached on the other Islands (Cotula, pg 230).

After the invasion of the Island each state continued to claim sovereignty of the Islands, in the year 1980 the UAE forwarded the case to the United Nations Security Council which did not accept the claims. It stated that most of the infrastructure in the Island had been put in place and furthermore the governor of Abu Musa was Iranian. The Memorandum of Understanding between the states did not last as only a day after the British left and two day before the UAE could become a federation officially, the Iranian military moved in and took over the Islands on the 30th of November 1971. Since the invasion by Iran the Islands have been under their control since (Cotula, pg 250).

Basis of Iranian Claims

So as to prove that they had the sovereignty mover the Islands, Iran presented some arguments to prove their claims. The first claim was the issue of names, the Iranian claimed that the word “Tunb” was of Persian origin and it meant ‘hill.” The Iranian also pointed out that the Islands for a very long time before the 18th century had been occupied by the Persians. The Persians also pointed out that the geographical proximity of the islands to Iran. The other claim by Iran is that the Qawasim ruled in Lingeh as officials put in place by Persia (Cotula, pg 210).

Irregularities in Iran’s claims

The UAE claims that the word “Tunb” means a long rope used for putting up tents, thus the origin of the word can not be used to decide the sovereignty of the Islands. The second claim by the Iranian government on the Persian occupation is not supported by historical events. The Persians only occupied the Islands for a short period only and were later driven out. The other claim by Iran that the Lingeh of Qawasim was an agent of the Persian is not true. The Lingeh of Qawasim never ruled the three Islands thus it can not be possible that the Lingeh was ruling on behalf of the Persians (Cotula, pg 200).


After reviewing the historic happenings surrounding the three Islands and looking at the arguments from both states it can be ascertained that the UAE has a stronger case in claiming the sovereignty of the Islands. The Fact that the UAE can prove their claims using some historical events is vital. If Iran feels that it has the historical privileges due to the claims that at one time the Persians ruled over the Islands then a question needs to be asked what about the Qawasim whose reign over the Islands can be traced back to about 125 years.


The conflict between the UAE and Iran can be solved through diplomatic means, gaining sovereignty over the islands by use of military force by the Iran raises many questions. If they claim to be at the Islands legally why can’t they produce evidence to prove their case? The international community should step in and help in the solving of the dispute. The British can play a major role in containing the situation as they are in a much better position to explain what happened as they were in charge of the Islands for over a century. As it stands each of the states involved in the tussle are all presenting facts to prove their sovereignty over the Islands.

Work Cited

THE ISLAND DISPUTE YOU HAVEN’T HEARD OF. By: Keating, Joshua E., Foreign Policy, 00157228, Dec2012, Issue 197

Qfinance: the ultimate resource. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.Legrenzi, Matteo. The GCC and the International Relations of the Gulf Diplomacy, Security and Economic Coordination in a Changing Middle East.. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011. Print.

Hong, Seoung. Maritime boundary disputes, settlement processes, and the law of the sea. London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2009. Print.French, Duncan. International law and dispute settlement: new problems and techniques. London: Hart Pub., 2010. Print.Craven, Matthew C. R.. Interrogating the treaty: essays in the contemporary law of treaties. Nijmegen, The Netherlands: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2005. Print.Cotula, Lorenzo. Law and Negotiating Power in Foreign Investment Shades of Grey in the Shadow of the Law.. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011. Print., Andrew T. How international law works: a rational choice theory,ISBN 9780195305562, 2008

<, Alan, The sovereignty revolution, ISBN 08047461, 2004