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Three Iranian Islands in the Persian Gulf: A Historical – Legal Research

Monday, December 9, 2013

Author: Naqi Tabarsa, Ph.D. in Political Sciences and University Faculty Member

Publisher: Tehran International Studies & Research Institute (TISRI)
Date of Publication: November 2011
ISBN: 978-964-526-161-8
Number of Pages: 1045
Language: Persian

Introduction

The issue of three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf has been among the most important and crucial factors determining Iran's relations with its southern Arab neighbors in the past years. Positions taken on the islands by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), either separately or with support from member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC], have waxed and waned in relation to requirements of time and Abu Dhabi’s relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, the historical backdrop of the dispute over the islands shows that UAE continues to resort to any means in order to keep up its claims about the three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf, especially in the public opinion of the world and international research bodies.

The present study is indeed one of the most accurate and the most detailed as well as the most scientific and impartial texts existing on the issue of the Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf. It includes a legal discussion of this issue in addition to a full account on its historical course, UAE’s claims and Iran's arguments. The author has focused on documents, letters and maps most of them he has personally collected from firsthand sources which greatly increase the value of his scholarly work.

The author has tried to find answers to the following questions: What political reasons and legal documents have been offered by Iran to prove its sovereignty over Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb islands? Which documents back UAE’s claims to the islands?

Book Description

Therefore, the author has dedicated the first chapter to theoretical bases of sovereignty and its various components, enforcement of government’s sovereignty and its role in the international law. He then explains general state of sovereignty in Iran from ancient times up to the Qajar era.

In the second chapter, the author takes a historical approach to the situation of the Persian Gulf and three Iranian islands under domination of Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain and has expounded security, political, and trade policies of those countries in the region. In the third chapter, the author focuses on geographical situation and general conditions of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb islands including climatic conditions, population, installations and facilities on the islands, and their maritime position. In this chapter, many documents have been used to prove that the Iranian governments under the rule of Karim Khan Zand and Qajar were not able to pursue and punish invaders that encroached upon the Iranian shores in the Persian Gulf through the Sea of Oman because they did not have enough ships to chase them. Therefore, they decided to transfer Lengeh port and its affiliated areas, including the three aforesaid islands to Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah emirates to manage them on their behalf provided that they would recognize Iran's sovereignty over the islands.

Chapter four gives a detailed account of the situation of Qawasim tribe in the islands from 1727 to 1887 and has provided in-depth insight into their common ownership.

In the fifth chapter of the present book, attention has been paid to Iranian government’s sovereignty over Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa islands from 1887 up to the time that they were occupied by Britain in 1903. Increased rivalry between Russia and Britain in the Persian Gulf and Russia’s effort to increase its influence on the islands as well as Iran's emphasis on its sovereignty over the islands, are major topics discussed in this chapter.

The sixth chapter is about occupation of the three islands by Britain from 1903 to 1971. This is one of the longest chapters in the book which gives a detailed account of the occupation of the islands by Britain in 1903, the Iranian government’s reaction and global reverberations of the occupation, measures taken by the Iranian government to protect the rights of Iran and measures taken to establish Iran's effective sovereignty over the islands during the period of their occupation by the UK. The author believes that the British occupying forces had no sovereignty over Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb islands in 1903 and the occupation of the islands was totally illegal. On the other hand, the British government occupied the three islands on the strength of “no man’s land” principle and later on, it resorted to “prescription” principle. However, the contents of this chapter clearly prove that occupation of the islands could not have been legitimate on the strength of such principles as “no man’s land” or “prescription.” The author has noted in this chapter that after the three islands were practically occupied by Britain in 1903 (of course, under the aegis of Arab sheiks in Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah) Iran struggled to restore its full sovereignty over the islands until 1971 because the Iranian government believed that it is the rightful owner of the islands. The Iranian officials maintained that the islands had been occupied on a temporary basis by Britain and the only impediment that did not allow the Iranian government to enforce its complete sovereignty over the islands was Britain’s threat to use of force.

In chapter seven, the author focuses on legal procedures used to settle territorial and border disputes by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and discusses jurisdiction of the court. Here, the author first discusses Iran's conditions for referring the case to the ICJ before giving a brief account of international cases of territorial and border disputes as well as prominent cases of such disputes in various parts of the world, including in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. The book also delineates certain judicial procedures which have been used by ICJ to settle territorial disputes.

In the eighth chapter, the author discussed the results of long negotiations between Iran and Britain in 1970 and 1971 and analyzes situation of Iran, Britain and Sharjah. On this basis and in accordance with the contents of the 1971 agreement and its inseparable appendices (especially appendices No. 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10), Iran's sovereignty over Abu Musa island has been confirmed by the British government as well as the ruler of Sharjah. Iran only accepted to sign the agreement on the condition that it would be in charge of maintaining security over the entire island and this has been also confirmed in a letter sent by the Iranian foreign minister to his British counterpart on November 25, 1971. The letter was notified by the British foreign minister to ruler of Sharjah. The Iranian foreign minister’s letter on the security of the island was in fact a provision which was considered by the Iranian government as indispensable part of the agreement and had also been recognized by the British government. The fact that the British government and ruler of Sharjah accepted that Iran should be in charge of maintaining security of the entire island, restricted sovereign right of Sharjah with regard to the island’s security while increasing Iran's power as the country which can sway effective sovereignty over the island.

Restoring Iran's sovereignty over the islands and its international reverberations are the main subject of the next chapter of the present book. It discusses positions of Arab countries, member states of the Security Council and third-party states on the restoration of Iran's sovereignty over Lesser and Greater Tunbs and Abu Musa.

After Iran's sovereignty was restored over Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb islands and Iranian forces were deployed there on November 30, 1971, the will and intent of the Iranian government for regaining full and absolute sovereignty over the islands was officially realized in the case of Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb islands. As for Abu Musa, arrangements were made in accordance with the agreement signed in 1971 and its appendices. In the tenth chapter, performance of the Iranian government with regard to the three islands up to November 2005 and various political, economic, and security components of Iran's sovereignty over Lesser and Greater Tunb islands have been explained in full length. This chapter also tells the story of Khater ship on August 22, 1992 and the subsequent notes which were exchanged between Iran and UAE from 1992 to 2005 on Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa islands, negotiations between representatives of Iran and UAE over the three islands, and the impact of the issue of Abu Musa island on political and economic relations between Iran and UAE.

The 11th chapter of the book represents the author’s effort to first explain and then analyze all legal and political reasons given by UAE to uphold its claims to the three islands from the viewpoint of Emirati state officials, legal experts and authors.

Iran's will and intent to enforce its sovereignty over Greater and Lesser Tunb islands and Abu Musa and UAE’s effort to engage third parties in this issue from 1992 up to November 2005 constitute the main subject of the last chapter of this book. This chapter puts forth positions taken on the three Iranian islands by permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and a great number of third-party organizations. The third parties include regional and Arab organizations such as the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parliamentary Union of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Member States; the United Nations, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union in addition to Arab, Asian, European, and Latin American states.

On the whole, based on historical documents including the written works of ancient historians, territorial sovereignty over the Persian Gulf coasts and islands has belonged to Iran. Even after the rise of Islam and domination of Arabs over Mesopotamia and Persia, the Persian Gulf region has been under the control of the ruler of Fars. Based on these historical realities, the Persian Gulf and its islands have always been under sovereignty of the rulers of Fars or Kerman regions and the Iranian government has been the sole entity with organized legal structure of a government as well as political and social establishment that would authorize it to be recognized in the region as a state.

Continued sovereignty of Iran over the islands has been an adequate condition and legal experts believe that every country may experience willing or unwilling gaps in enforcing its sovereignty over parts of its territory in the course of time. Therefore, the fact that a government has not been able for a specific period of time to enforce its sovereignty over part of its territory does not mean that its sovereignty can be totally negated.

The sovereignty of the Iranian government over Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa islands was enforced before they were occupied by the British forces in 1903. Even some British officials like Sir Denis Wright, the prominent British diplomat and London’s ambassador to Tehran, have owned up to this fact.

Britain’s announcement that it was leaving the Persian Gulf in 1968 was followed by three years of intense negotiations between Iranian and British officials in Tehran and London. During the talks, the British officials not only explicitly supported Sharjah, but also put tremendous pressure on the Iranian government to make it give concessions, including by giving up its historical claim to Bahrain. Following negotiations, an agreement and its appendices were signed between the two sides in 1971 according to which the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa returned to Iran's sovereignty on November 30, 1971 and this was an end to long occupation of this part of the Iranian territory by the British forces. Thereafter, Iran has exercised its full sovereign powers in political, economic and security areas on the three islands. Meanwhile, administrative arrangements in Abu Musa Island have been shaped on the basis of 1971 agreement and its appendices and have continued so far.

In view of the above facts, one may claim that the present book is one of the most comprehensive and documentary texts which has been so far published on the issue of the three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf. 

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