Tehran, Iran – Iran is putting plans in motion to increase the population of islands in the strategic Strait of Hormuz that are claimed by the United Arab Emirates as well.
Iranian officials have for months discussed plans to increase the number of Iranian residents on the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb islands, which lie at the heart of a decades-long dispute with Iran’s southern neighbour the UAE.
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How will Iran populate the islands?
For one, it may offer Iranians who are considering moving there free plots of land measuring 300sq metres (3,230sq feet).
It will in addition offer them loans to build a home, as part of a national homeownership scheme.
The government will also exempt the islands from a condition applied in the rest of the country: Applicants should not have used any government housing facilities since the 1979 revolution, and must not have another home to their name.
So now, applicants can start to build homes on the islands, along with several others in the same waters, if they commit to living on them.
How many people may move to the tiny islands?
Adding to the plan’s attractiveness as a living option with free land, families may be tempted by a decree passed in early August that exempts one male in the family from mandatory military service if the family commits to living on an island for 12 years.
Hossein Dastourizadeh, a senior police official in the southern province of Hormozgan, told local media earlier this month that families who committed to being on the islands for a long period will be eligible for a conscription exemption for either the father or one of the sons.
Abu Musa, which is the largest of the three disputed islands, has a total area of about 25sq km (9.6sq miles), according to local media, with an estimated 520,000 residential plots to be marked out and allocated to eligible applicants.
Considering the average Iranian family size of 3.3, the island’s population could potentially be elevated to a considerable 1.7 million people, which is far higher than the several thousand people who currently live there.
Why are the islands important?
Abu Musa is located approximately 75km (46 miles) from the Iranian mainland and, along with other islands near it, is considered crucial to the country’s maritime defence on the busy Strait of Hormuz where both oil tankers and warships pass.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian army have a presence on Abu Musa and the other islands, but there is no publicly available information on the exact extent.
Alireza Tangsiri, the IRGC navy commander, told the media earlier this year that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has personally ordered efforts to increase the islands’ population as a means to increase their security.
“When the top figure in the establishment says we must prepare the place for people to live, it means that we are looking to the population to provide the security of the region,” he said.
What is the UAE’s claim to the islands?
Earlier this week, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader, told Al Jazeera that the UAE would risk “destabilising the region’s security” if it persists in claiming sovereignty over the islands.
The three disputed islands have been under Iran’s control since 1971, when the then-shah of the country dispatched the royal navy there following a withdrawal by British forces.
Emirati leaders have since said they own the islands and have been supported in their claim by other Arab countries.
Iran strongly rejects the claim and has said it will not entertain any negotiations over their ownership.
China and Russia have in the past year signed separate joint statements with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that challenged Iran’s rights over the islands.
The two had tried to maintain close relations with Tehran as well, but in response to the statements, Iran summoned their envoys to Tehran in rare moves to express its dissatisfaction.
In August, Iran also launched a series of military drills on the islands, using aircraft, missiles, vehicles and troops to showcase its readiness to defend its territory.
The IRGC said at the time that it had positioned missile defence systems and anti-aircraft weaponry on the islands and displayed a new vessel armed with missiles with ranges up to 600km (372 miles).
“The islands of the Persian Gulf are the honour of the great nation of Islamic Iran, and as children of this brave nation, we are duty-bound to defend our honour,” the IRGC’s Tangsiri had said.