The Iranian government is trying hard to win friends and influence people throughout this region and south Asia, to counterbalance its increasing isolation caused by the UN Security Council sanctions. Its officials say they want to forge strong political relationships and economic partnerships with Iran’s neighbours. But how seriously can we take Tehran’s overtures when Iran still forcibly occupies three islands, to which the UAE has solid historical claims?
Worse, in recent months various Iranian diplomats, parliamentarians and religious leaders have deliberately ratcheted-up tensions, insisting that the islands – Greater Tunbs, Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa - have always been Iranian and will remain so for ever more.
Iran’s belligerency and intransigency on this issue was heightened in March when the Arab League met in Damascus and called upon Tehran to end its occupation of the islands.
“The continued attempts by Iran to build settlements and conduct war-games in the territorial waters, air space, economic zones and coral reefs of the occupied islands are all acts that constitute a gross violation of the UAE sovereignty and territorial integrity”, read the Summit’s communiqué forwarded to the United Nations.
In response, Mohammed Khazaee, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, wrote to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon saying “The Islamic Republic of Iran vehemently denies the UAE’s unfounded claims…” and describing the islands as an indivisible part of Iran’s territory.
The end result is stalemate. Iran says it has historical records and documents to prove its ownership of the islands, but, if this is, indeed, the case why does the Iranian government refuse international arbitration and reject adjudication by the International Court of Justice?
Until now, this country has displayed remarkable patience during its dealings with Tehran. Over the decades the UAE has regularly re-stated its claim in a quiet and dignified fashion without ever resorting to childish insults or offensive tones.
Our leaders have deliberately refrained from incendiary rhetoric out of a sense of responsibility towards a region which is already volatile and because the two countries are longstanding trading partners. But, sadly, it’s becoming evident that Tehran mistakenly equates our patience with weakness. In reality, our case is powerful and, furthermore, it is strongly supported by the international community.
We know that as far back as the 18th century the islands belonged to the Al-Qawasim (Al-Qasimi) of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah whose sovereignty over them was recognised by the British government.
We also know that on several occasions Iran attempted to buy or lease the islands but was turned down on each occasion. These unsuccessful attempts surely indicate the islands were never the property of Iran as no country would seek to purchase or rent real estate that it already owned or believed it owned.
In his book The Three Occupied UAE Islands author and consultant Thomas R. Mattair highlights 16th century documentation indicating members of the Al-Qawasim tribe controlled the islands which they used for pearl diving and grazing land for their animals. Mattair believes the Iranian argument is tenuous and lacks hard evidence. If the case were to reach the International Court of Justice the UAE would win, he says.
Another disagreement between the Arab World and Iran centres on whether the Gulf should be prefixed with ’Persian’ or ’Arabian’ or simply known as ’the Gulf’. In his letter to the UN Secretary-General, Mr Khazaee called any substitution for ’Persian Gulf’ not only illegal but an act of “political chicanery”.
Not so. Those clear, warm waters lap onto our shores as well as Iran’s and, in any case, today, there is no such country as Persia. If Iranians want maps to reflect their historical roots they can print them but they should not try to impose their diktats on others.
We prefer to adopt a more ‘live and let live’ approach. After all, Britain has no problem with France calling the strip of water dividing their two countries ’La Manche’ (the sleeve) and, likewise, France accepts that Britain refers to it as ’The English Channel’.
However, when it comes to our islands, the time for niceties is drawing to a close. We’ve been politely staking our claim for the past 37 years with no result. How much longer are we going to complain to the Arab League and how many more letters will we send to the UN?
If Iran sincerely wishes to extend its hand in friendship it must make concessions like all good neighbours everywhere and be flexible in its dealings. Simply refusing to discuss the future of the disputed islands isn’t good enough. Its officials should either be prepared to sit down with ours in a spirit of compromise or agree to the matter’s adjudication in an international court.
In any event, the UAE should refuse to be strung along any longer. Greater Tunbs, Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa weren’t barren rocks. They were inhabited by our people, several of whom lost their lives when the Shah’s men used force to take them over so as to turn them into military outposts.
We need to tell Tehran enough is enough and mean it. If Iran is still uncooperative it should face diplomatic/economic repercussions, or else we might as well meekly hand the islands over, together with an open invitation to predators everywhere. At stake is more than land. Our dignity is on the line.