Persian Gulf

Iran’s Territorial Disputes with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates

Map of the Strait of HormuzAs explained in last Friday’s post, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia run deep. Iran’s relations with several other Arab countries of the region are also strained, due in part to active and potential territorial disputes in the Gulf region. The small island country of Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim political establishment rules a Shiite majority population, is a recurrent flashpoint.

Bahrain, linked to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway, plays an important role in the Saudi political—and moral— economy. In essence, it functions as a playground for well-off residents of the kingdom, a place where people can engage in activities proscribed at home. An acquaintance of mine once described the “Saudi special” served at his favorite restaurant in Bahrain: campaign and spare ribs. Bahrain is also home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, seen as crucial for Saudi security. It is thus hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia supported Bahrain’s harsh crackdown on the massive demonstrations recently waged by the island’s Shiite majority, an uprising that it immediately blamed on Iranian agitation and financial support. More recently, a prominent Saudi writer has claimed that the Iranian agent charged with plotting to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Gholam Shakuri, was ultimately behind the disturbances in Bahrain.

Map of Bahrain Iran, for its part, has periodically made claims to Bahrain in its entirety, maintaining that the island was unfairly removed from Iranian sovereignty by Britain in the 19th century. Such claims were pushed hard in 1906 and again in 1927, and were temporarily reactivated after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran subsequently dropped its official claim to Bahrain, allowing the development of superficially friendly relations between the two countries. Yet as WikiLeaks cables reveal, “Bahrain’s leaders sometimes speak to U.S. officials of their genuine worries that Iranian missiles are sighted on targets such as the NAVCENT headquarters in downtown Manama and the royal palaces.”

Linked to the Bahrain-Iran question is a more active territorial dispute pitting Iran against the United Arab Emirates. This quarrel concerns three islands in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The latter two are essentially uninhabited and the former holds only around 2,000 inhabitants, but they lay astride the vital waterway that links the Gulf oilfields to the Indian Ocean, and are thus of some strategic significance. During the days of British naval hegemony, the islands were attached to the U.K.’s client state of Sharjah (and later Ras al-Khaimah) along the “Trucial Coast,” an area that later became the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As the British were withdrawing from the region in 1971, Iran forcibly took the islands; Britain’s objections were dropped when Iran relinquished its claims to Bahrain. The UAE, however, has continued to maintain its rightful ownership of the archipelago, although its position has been complicated by the fact that Iran gained control before the UAE became an internationally recognized sovereign state.

In September 2011, the UAE took its case to the United Nations. According to one news source, an Emirati official informed the General Assembly that, “The occupation by Iran of three small islands in the Persian Gulf is a violation of international law.”* Iran responded by blaming the whole imbroglio on “foreign powers who seek to destabilize the region”—in other words, the US and UK. Iran rejected the UAE’s case out of hand, arguing that Abu Musa and the Tunbs “will remain [ours] forever.” Considering the substantial military investments that it has made on Abu Musa, Iran is indeed unlikely to considered giving up control, much to the consternation of the UAE.

Map of Greater Iran from Iranian DefenseExtreme Iranian nationalists make further territorial claims in the region, well beyond what the Iranian government has been willing to consider. As revealed in commentary on articles pertaining to the Tunbs dispute, some claim that the United Arab Emirates itself lacks international legitimacy and ought to belong to Iran: “Go read history, UAE didn’t exist up to 40 years ago. The entire country was part of Iran.” Such considerations potentially extend to Oman’s exclave on the Musandam Peninsula, which guards the southern entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. A map of “Greater Iran” posted on the independent “Iran Defense” Website, for example, includes Musandam as well as Bahrain. The fact that an Iranian language, Kumzari, is spoken on part of the peninsula bolsters the connection. An area of great tourism potential, Musandam also benefits from smuggling goods into Iran, a trade estimated to be worth some $250,000 to $500,000 a day. But despite this illicit trade, Iran and Oman maintain cordial relations.

Map_of_Musandam_Peninsula If Iranian nationalists sometimes employ extreme rhetoric in advancing cultural and territorial claims to lands in and on the far side of the Gulf, anti-Iranian Arab partisans often respond in kind. As one commentator on an article about the Tunbs dispute put it,

 “Iran’s occupation of territories vacated by Britain, with the blessings of the West, has been compared with Israeli occupation of disputed territory in the Palestine Mandate. UAE Sheikh al-Nahayan noted that, “The occupation of any Arab land is an occupation Iran certainly has no better claim than Israel. Iran has a “Got it, Keep it, No negotiations” policy with their occupied territories. They should shut the **** up about the Palestinian dispute.”

* It is highly unlikely that the quotation is verbatim, as the Emirati official would not have used the term “Persian Gulf,” which is generally rejected with some vehemence in the Arab world.

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What’s In A (Place) Name? The Gulf Controversy

In mid-January 2010, the Islamic Solidarity Games—scheduled to take place in Tehran in April—were cancelled over a toponymic dispute. The Iranian organizers of the athletic competition insisted on labeling the body of water located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the “Persian Gulf” in their promotional materials. The event’s organizing committee, based in Saudi Arabia, refused to tolerate such effrontery, and called off the competition. Officials in Saudi Arabia, like those in many other Arabic-speaking countries, regard the term “Persian Gulf” as a form of Iranian cartographic imperialism. They prefer Arabian Gulf, and if that name cannot be used, they insist on a neutral term such as The “Arabo-Persian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.”

This controversy reveals the deep cultural cleavage between Iran and the Arabic speaking realm. Most other bodies of water named for particular places do not inspire much animosity. The United States lodges no protests over the Gulf of Mexico; India does not object to the Arabian Sea; Malaysia has no problem with the South China Sea; Taiwan and Japan do not worry about the Philippine Sea; Madagascar and Australia are fine with the Indian Ocean. The only other water body to generate a similar quarrel is the one marked on our maps as the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans insist on labeling the East Sea. Like the Arabs and the Persians, Japanese and Koreans have a long history of conflict, which lends vehemence to seemingly arcane debates over geographical nomenclature.

The term Persian Gulf has been widely used by European geographers since the time of the ancient Greeks. Substituting the term “Arabian Gulf” would generate its own problems, not least by infuriating the Iranian people. It could also lead to confusion with the adjacent body of water known as the Arabian Sea, or even with the nearby Red Sea (which Europeans sometimes historically called the Arabian Gulf). Partly for these reasons, the International Hydrographic Organizations maintains that the Persian Gulf is the Gulf’s only proper name. The United States government, however, is no longer sure. Although the State Department’s Board of Geographical Names settled on Persian Gulf in 1917, the U.S. military now asks its personnel to avoid the term, preferring either “The Arabian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.” U.S.-based universities operating branch campuses on the Arabic-speaking side of the gulf do likewise. In the United Arab Emirates, the term Persian Gulf is simply banned.

What’s in a name? In a politically charged context, evidently quite a lot.

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