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Occupation of the Three Islands

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The Government of the UAE has sought, with considerable success, to consolidate international support for its continuing diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian occupation in 1971 of the three islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa.

While the UAE, like other member states of the AGCC, seeks to develop bilateral economic and political links with Iran, there is a clearly defined and agreed policy, both in the UAE and at the AGCC level, that such development will not take place at the expense of the UAE's sovereignty over the islands.
It is now 31 years since Iran forcibly seized Greater and Lesser Tunb on the night of 30 November 1971. At that time, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Iran and Sharjah, to allow for both to administer part of the island of Abu Musa, without prejudice to their continuing claims of sovereignty. Since then and most particularly since 1994, Iran has continually been in breach of the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding, interfering with free access, building military installations and placing military equipment on the island and moving in settlers whose presence has demonstrably and significantly altered the demographic structure of the population of Abu Musa. It has also, in contravention of the Memorandum of Understanding, imposed its control over areas of Abu Musa which were reserved under the agreement to Sharjah.

UAE suggestions for resolution  

The Government of the UAE has consistently reaffirmed its right to sovereignty over the islands, protesting at the military occupation and subsequent fortification of the Tunbs and at the overt breach of the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding on Abu Musa. At the same time, while continuing to assert its sovereignty over the islands, the UAE has offered two suggestions to Iran as ways of seeking to find a solution to the political impasse.

The first is for the two parties to engage in direct bilateral discussions on the resolution of issues arising out of the Iranian occupation of the three islands, including both the proper implementation of the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding on Abu Musa and the broader, but related, question of sovereignty. The UAE has set no preconditions on the offer to hold such discussions, apart from stating the necessity of laying down a fixed time limit for their conclusion. The second option is for the issue of sovereignty to be submitted to international arbitration or referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, the UAE agreeing to be bound in advance to accept any ruling made by the Court.

The Government of Iran has rejected both options. Since the ICJ can only exercise its jurisdiction if both parties agree to referral of a dispute, this effectively means that Iran has rejected the good offices of the world's primary legal body, which would examine in detail any documentation put forward by the parties. The refusal of Iran to agree to a process which would require the submission of legal documentation must, inevitably, cast doubt on the legal validity of its claims.

The Government of Iran has agreed to enter into bilateral discussions and has said that these would be without preconditions. At the same time, Iranian officials have refused to discuss the question of sovereignty over the three islands, referring only to the need to resolve 'misunderstandings'. Frequent Iranian statements have reaffirmed claim to sovereignty over the islands, refusing in particular to enter into any discussion with relation to Greater and Lesser Tunb.

While, in the opinion of the Government of the UAE, its claim to sovereignty over the islands is fully justified, it is willing to allow the issue to be settled through bilateral discussions, through international arbitration, or by the ICJ, and is prepared to submit documentation to be evaluated within the framework of international law.

Legal issues

International law states clearly that sovereignty cannot be acquired by invasion, military force or coercion. In the case of Greater and Lesser Tunb, the Iranian invasion in 1971 in which a number of Ras al-Khaimah policemen were killed, is a matter of historical fact. In the case of the Memorandum of Understanding on Abu Musa, the Government of Sharjah specifically reserved its rights to sovereignty. Quite apart from the fact that the Memorandum was signed only under the threat of invasion, amounting to coercion, it has subsequently been breached substantially and consistently in such a way as to indicate that the Government of Iran has no intention of abiding by its terms.

Arab rulers since 1330

Aside from the legal issues outlined above there is a wealth of historical documentation to support the UAE's claim to sovereignty over the islands. Apart from short and interrupted periods in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the three islands have been governed by Arab rulers since 1330. From then until 1622 they were part of the Arab-ruled Kingdom of Hormuz, based on the island of the same name, which also included much of what is now the UAE and Oman.

From the middle of the eighteenth century the islands were ruled by the Al Qawasim dynasty which today provides the sheikhs of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah. At that time the State of the Al Qawasim included not only much of the northern UAE and the three islands but also extended along the southern coast of Iran to include the port of Bandar Lingeh. Treaties signed with the British in the early nineteenth century acknowledged that the Al Qasimi dominions extended to both sides of the Arabian Gulf and, at the same time, represented an acknowledgement of their sovereignty under prevailing international law.

Bandar Lingeh remained under the rule of an Al Qasimi sheikh until 1886, at which time it was absorbed by Iran, regardless of the fact that it had by then been part of the Al Qasimi state for over a century. In 1887 Iran occupied a fourth island, Sirri, also part of the Al Qasimi dominions although administered by the Bandar Lingeh branch of the family. In a protest to Tehran, the British Government, which had been in treaty relations with the Emirates since 1820, noted that Sirri, as well as the other islands, 'formed part of the hereditary estates of the Jowasimi (Qasimi) Arab Sheikhs'. Many of Sirri's inhabitants, rejecting the occupation, then moved to Abu Musa, which remained uncontested as part of the Al Qasimi state.

As late as 1903 the British Political Resident in the Gulf was able to state that, as far as he was aware, Iran had made no claim to the Tunbs. The next year, however, Iranian customs officials landed on both Abu Musa and Greater Tunb, although, after protests from the Ruler of Sharjah (which then included Ras al-Khaimah) and from Britain, they withdrew. At the time the Government of Iran failed to respond to a request from Britain that it should produce documentation in support of its claim to the islands.

Al Qasimi state divided

In 1920 the Al Qasimi state divided into two, with Abu Musa becoming part of Sharjah, and Greater and Lesser Tunb becoming part of R
as al-Khaimah. Shortly afterwards in 1923, Iran once again put forward a claim to sovereignty over the three islands, but following protests from Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and Britain, the claim was dropped. Further incidents of Iranian interference took place, prompting more protests. In 1926 the Iranian customs were instructed by Tehran 'not to take any steps in Abu Musa or Tamb (the Tunbs), pending reply from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding status of these islands', a clear indication that Iran was unsure of the legal validity of its claims.
The weakness of the Iranian position, in terms of international law, was underlined during negotiations between Iran and Britain in the late 1920s. Iran first offered to withdraw its claim to Abu Musa if its title over the Tunbs was recognised. Failing in that objective, in itself an acknowledgement that its claim to Abu Musa had no validity, Iran then offered to buy the Tunbs. The offer was rejected in 1930 by the Ruler of Ras al-Khaimah with the support of his colleague, the Ruler of Sharjah, following which Iran then offered to lease the Tunbs for a period of 50 years. Once again no agreement was reached. Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah continued to exercise their sovereignty over the three islands unchallenged until the late 1960s.

British withdrawal prompts renewed claims  

Following the announcement in 1968 by Britain of its intention to withdraw from the Arabian Gulf by the end of 1971 the Government of Iran put forward a claim to the whole of the island of Bahrain. In the wake of a referendum conducted on Bahrain under UN supervision, Iran was obliged to abandon its claim which had no legal basis. It promptly revived its then-dormant claim to Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb. It is significant, in terms of international law, that it did so not on the basis of providing historical evidence of its claim to sovereignty but through threat of coercion.

On 28 September 1971 the Shah of Iran stated in an interview with the London Guardian that: 'we need them [the islands]; we shall have them; no power on earth shall stop us'.

Attempts by Britain to resolve the problem had mixed results. Sharjah, reserving its claim to sovereignty over Abu Musa but concerned about the obvious coercion from Iran, agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. In the case of Greater and Lesser Tunb, Ras al-Khaimah declined to agree to any form of Iranian presence, with the result that Iran invaded and occupied them.

The Iranian presence on the three islands today is based in the case of the Tunbs on military occupation undertaken in contravention of international law. In the case of Abu Musa, threats and coercion, which are themselves illegal under international law, were used by Iran to obtain agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding which has then been constantly breached in such a manner and to such an extent as to render open to question the continuing validity of the Memorandum itself. In effect, therefore, particularly in the light of Iran's militarisation of those areas of Abu Musa in which it is present, Abu Musa too is under Iranian military occupation.

UAE keen to pursue peaceful option

Notwithstanding the illegal nature of the Iranian presence on the three islands the Government of the UAE is keen to pursue any peaceful option that may lead to a resolution of the issue. The UAE's offer to submit the case to the ICJ or to international arbitration having been rejected by Iran the UAE has suggested once again, with the support of its AGCC partners and with backing from resolutions passed by a number of regional and international organisations, that the two states should engage in bilateral negotiations without preconditions, apart from the setting of a timetable for their completion.

That offer remains on the table. During the past year the Iranian Government has stated, as it has done before, that it wishes to improve relations with the Arab states of the Gulf. The view of the UAE and of its AGCC colleagues is that such talk from Iran cannot be taken seriously until such time as it is supported by concrete and positive steps to deal with the issue of the islands. Their future remains a key factor in intra-Gulf relations.