The Strait of Hormuz

Iran–UAE Island Dispute Highlights Shaky Relationship

August 19, 2008 06:03 AM
by Josh Katz
Iran and the United Arab Emirates are quarreling over the sovereignty of three islands, underscoring the tenuous situation between the neighbors.

Iran and Emirates in Island Dispute

Iran and the United Arab Emirates are at odds over three islands located in the strategic Strait of Hormuz called Abu Mousa, the Larger Tunb and the Lesser Tunb.

Last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE, rebuked Iran for opening a maritime rescue office and ship registration office on Abu Mousa, one of the three islands both nations lay claim to.

The secretary general of the GCC called Iran’s decision
a “striking violation and illegitimate action,” and the three islands were an “inseparable part of the UAE,” the Media Line reports.

On Saturday, August 16, the secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Musa, also requested that Iran halt such measures and called for direct negotiations between Iran and the UAE or international arbitration to settle the dispute, steps favored by the UAE, according to The National of the UAE.

A 1971 memorandum granted the UAE sovereignty over the islands, while permitting Iran to deploy troops on them.
The Media Line indicates that the conflict is “further straining relations between Iran and its non-Shi’ite neighbors.”

The Tehran Times tells a different story while reporting on the issue; it asserts that the islands, historically Iranian, were given back to Iran on Nov. 30, 1971, “through a legal process before the state of the United Arab Emirates was created.” But, “Regardless of historical evidence and international regulations, the UAE continues to make territorial claims against the Islamic Republic.”

Iran has suggested that it may close the Strait of Hormuz
if threatened, a vital passageway for the transport of oil in the Middle East. Dr Mustafa el Labbad, director of East Centre for Regional Strategic Studies in Cairo, said, “The story is all about controlling the Strait of Hormuz. Otherwise the island is very small and has no economic resources and can be easily targeted,” The National reports.

Background: The relationship between Iran and the UAE

The recent flare-up comes when the economic relationship between the UAE and Iran is at a crossroads, as the Emirates must choose how closely they want to abide by the international sanctions against its Iranian neighbor.

In June, the European Union adopted new sanctions against Iranian companies, freezing the assets of the country’s largest bank, Bank Melli. But the International Herald Tribune suggests that the UAE will continue trading with Iran, a country with which it shares long-standing financial ties.

About one-fifth of Iran’s imports came from the UAE last year. Additionally, “About half a million Iranians live in the Emirates, with assets estimated at US$300 billion, and about 300 weekly flights connect the two countries. Some 9,500 companies in the Emirates have an Iranian partner owning up to a 49 percent stake,” according to the Tribune.

Abdullah Abdul Khaleq, a political analyst at the Emirates University, said, “We don’t want to antagonize our neighbor Iran or upset our friend the United States. We don’t want to get very close to America and at the same time distance ourselves from Iran.”

Khaleq added that the UAE is not required to follow the sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States. Furthermore, small businesses in the Emirates have found it easy to skirt the economic barriers.

Questions over trade with Iran have also caused tension between the two major cities in the Emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, according to the Associated Press. The largest Iranian expatriate community in the world is located in Dubai, and Iran invests $14 billion in the city each year. Abu Dhabi, however, has been more cautious with Iranian trade amid fears that it would damage its relationship with the West.

Christopher Davidson, a UAE specialist and a lecturer at the U.K.’s Durham University, said, “Dubai has been jeopardizing Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Washington.” But at the same time, Davidson said that, in reality, Abu Dhabi might not be that opposed to Dubai’s relationship with Iran. The UAE looks to support other Gulf states, “And a bankrupt Iran is simply not in the Gulf's interest,” the Associated Press reports.

Related Topics: Recent border controversies

The dispute between Iran and the Emirates mirrors several other international border quarrels that have recently made headlines. Cambodia and Thailand placed troops at their borders after the detainment in July of three Thai activists who attempted to place a Thai flag at the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia. UNESCO had recently made the temple a World Heritage Site, even though Thais have argued that the site belongs to Thailand.

Also in July, South Korea recalled its ambassador to Japan because Japan released an educational guidebook for junior high school teachers claiming Japanese ownership of a disputed group of rocky islands.

Currently in the Caucasus, Russia announced that it would begin withdrawing its troops from Georgia on Monday, August 18. The conflict between the two countries dates to the early 1990s and the ownership of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have large populations that identify with Russia.

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