Will UAE and Iran resolve the three islands dispute?

The United Arab Emirates has shifted its strategy from direct talks with Iran to calling for international mediation.

Abu Musa island dispute
Ahmadinejad's visit to Abu Musa was well received in Iran, boosting his domestic popularity ahead of nuclear talks [AP]

London, United Kingdom –
 Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are once again at each others’ throats over the three islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb. This latest round of rhetorical warfare was instigated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s official visit to the island of Abu Musa on April 11; a move that some described as “tactical”, aiming to stir nationalist sentiment ahead of the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul.

Located in a strategic zone near the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, controlling these islands would enable one to dominate the sea-lanes entering and exiting the Gulf, and hence it is understandable why Tehran and Abu Dhabi are in fierce competition over them.

Nevertheless, it would be simplistic to blame the ongoing rivalry between these two neighbours on the geopolitics of the islands’ location. Instead, blame partly lies with Britain’s “half-solution” to the dispute and its continuous refusal to either support or deny the sovereignty claims of either Iran or the UAE. It is also in Tehran and Abu Dhabi’s opposing readings of history that one can find the root causes of their contemporary antagonism. If anything, it could be argued, their mutual geostrategic interest in the islands should have paved the way for their cooperation, not their competition.

The islands dispute

As the traditional regional power that once dominated its entire neighbourhood, and endowed with geographic depth, natural resources, independent armed forces, and a relatively large population size, Iran’s approach towards the three islands dispute has been rigid and uncompromising.

Tensions between the UAE and Iran

Since 1971, Tehran has repeatedly stated that its rule over the islands was “absolute” and “certain”, while expressing a willingness to hold bilateral talks in order to “clear the misunderstandings”. Tehran also insists that it had a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the United Kingdom, whereby Iran retrieved its occupied islands in return for its acquiescence to Bahrain’s independence.

More recently, finally, reports have been circulated in the Iranian press that accuse Abu Dhabi of opportunism, describing its activism over Abu Musa as a “sober attempt to manipulate the issue, so to increase its own authority vis-a-vis that of Sharjah”.

To this end, Iranian officials allege that if the UAE was serious in its claims to the islands, it would have, at the very least, supported Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and Algeria in the early 1970s when they, with the support of the Soviet Union, took the three islands issue to the UN Security Council. This is a charge that Emirati officials denounce outright, contending that it was literally impossible for the UAE government to back the Arab socialist camp, given the scale of intra-Emirate problems at the time of its unification in 1971/2, as well as the UAE’s own concern with the pan-Arabist forces and discourses in that period.

The UAE, on the other hand, has proved more flexible in its approach since 1992, when it began to pursue the issue wholeheartedly. Aware of its strategic need to accommodate its northern neighbour’s needs and concerns as well as Iran’s sensitivity over the issue, the UAE showed an initial preference for bilateral talks with Tehran – a preference which lasted until the end of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency of Iran. Realising that Tehran was less interested in talks and more interested in giving history lessons, Abu Dhabi, since 2006, has changed its strategy by seeking to internationalise the dispute, thereby using Tehran’s distorted international image to gain more backing for its efforts.

Recent remarks by the UAE foreign minister – that tension between the two countries could have global consequences – is a testimony to this. The UAE government has also sought third party mediation by countries that are on good terms with the Iranian regime, hoping that they may be able to encourage Tehran to soften its stance on the issue of islands.

Given close ties between Tehran and Beijing, for instance, the UAE took an extraordinary step in 2010 by asking Beijing to mediate between the two parties, while simultaneously calling on Tehran to take the issue to an international body for arbitration.

Calls for internationalisation

However, even internationalisation and/or securitisation of the issue seems unlikely to cause a change in Tehran’s stance, especially at this time of political change and strategic uncertainty in the region. To begin with, it is doubtful that Iran will respond positively to UAE calls for international arbitration – simply because doing so will, in retrospect, refute Tehran’s claims about its “undeniable sovereignty” over the islands.

The UAE will need world powers’ overt cooperation and support if it is to successfully induce Iran into discussions about the islands.”

What is more, Tehran knows all too well that any form of international negotiation, let alone compromise, over these islands will enflame the Iranian public and opposition who will certainly accuse it of endangering Iran’s territorial integrity, and so will seek to challenge its legitimacy to rule. At a time when regime’s popularity is at its lowest point, Tehran will undoubtedly do its best to avert such an eventuality.

More importantly, the UAE will need world powers’ overt cooperation and support if it is to successfully induce Iran into discussions about the islands. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to believe that such cooperation would not be forthcoming.

Britain will be reluctant to support the UAE’s cause at a time when London itself is locked in a heated dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. China, too, will be hesitant to lend its backing to Abu Dhabi, as Beijing continues to utilise its long history as a justification for its sovereignty claims over a number of islands in the South China Sea. In other words, Beijing and London will be putting themselves in a very difficult position should they decide to support the UAE call for international adjudication, since any move in that direction will inevitably reduce their ability to refuse third party/international mediation in their own disputes.

As for the US and the EU, suffice to say that they are more likely to prioritise a resolution to Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West over the UAE’s territorial claims, especially since they seem to be making encouraging progress in their talks with Tehran. Put differently, Washington and Brussels are likely to avoid antagonising Tehran, and thus limit their efforts to the issuance of general statements that would call on Iran to cooperate with the UAE; a call that will fall on deaf ears in Tehran.

After all, the last thing Western powers want today is to alienate the Iranian public by backing the UAE over the three islands, as this will be seen as a direct threat to Iran’s territorial integrity in the eyes of the Iranian populace. This in turn will not only enable the regime to mobilise popular support for itself, but could also hinder efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff ahead of the Baghdad meeting.

A changing geostrategy

Looking ahead, there are strong grounds to assume that the ongoing tussle between Iran and the UAE will continue to complicate their bilateral relations in the coming years, but one can be certain that their rivalry is very unlikely to lead to a full-blown conflict.

Putting aside the strong cultural and communal ties between the two nations, they both realise the detrimental effects of such an outcome on their mutually beneficial and somewhat inter-linked economies.

Equally important, a full-out conflict is improbable because there is a broader geopolitical dimension to the three island dispute that deprives Abu Dhabi from the very international backing it needs to get concessions from Tehran.

A glance through the historical evolution of the three islands quarrel from the 19th century through the 1970s, the 1990s and up until the present illustrates that the contemporary brawl between Tehran and Abu Dhabi has always been linked to the geopolitics of the Middle East and the role of global power therein.

As such, the timing of the current flare-up makes it plausible to see the development as an indication of a changing geostrategic environment in the region; one that could benefit Iran above all the others if – and this is a big “if” – Iran and the P5+1 can come to an agreement in Baghdad.

In this case, and as Washington begins to shift its focus to the Asia Pacific region, it is possible to envision the gradual emergence of a strategic relation between Tehran and Washington; one in which Iran enjoys a greater freedom of action in the conduct of its regional affairs, in return for its constructive contributions to securing, albeit silently, US interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Levant.

Nima Khorrami Assl is a security analyst at the Transnational Crisis Project in London.