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Home » Border Disputes, Cultural Geography, Southwest Asia and North Africa

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

Submitted by on October 20, 2011 – 12:02 am 6 Comments |  
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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  • Most Arabs acknowledge that the term Persian Gulf has much more historical weight than the nationalist neologism Arab Gulf (that nobody uses except a bunch of pan-Arabists). So the quotation may well be verbatim.

    I’m not sure how to evaluate your “Greater Iran” map. Certainly Azeris, who speak, Turkic are not any Iranic people by language, not more than Turkmens. They actually have more of a historical claim to Iraq and Bahrain (backed by religious affinity) than to some of the regions you mention. The relation with Ossetian is so remote (via Scythians) that I’m surprised to see it mentioned at all. The claim to Kurdistan, while expectable, contradicts the will of the Kurdish People in Iran as well. Tajiks at the moment are happy playing US puppy in the region (although I’m of the opinion that the USA is playing the Iranian game).

    Overall it’s something as weird as Italy claiming France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Romania… and as we are into it, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece and all the Mediterranean basin and, why not?, all Latin America but including all former Spanish and French possessions in north America like Texas, Greater Louisiana, Canada, etc. Nuts!

    • I doubt that most Arab leaders accept the term Persian Gulf — in January 2010, the Islamic Solidarity Games were cancelled because the Iranian hosts used a map with that term (see the January 20, 2010 GeCurrents post on the subject).  I agree about the Greater Iran map — thanks for pointing out some of its bizarre features.  The Azeri issue is a bit more complicated, however.  Azeri certainly is a Turkic language, but the Azeris of Iran are in general well integrated into the Iranian national formation, and I can therefore understand why it was included in the map (see, however, the April 30, 2010 GeoCurrents post on the cartoon cockroach controversy).  Interesting that the Turkic-speaking Karakalpak region of Uzbekistan is included in “Greater Iran,” but not the Uzbek-speaking areas. If memory serves correctly, Uzbek is the most deeply “Persianified” of the Turkic languages (lacking vowel harmony), and many Uzbeks were until recently Tajik speakers. 

      In general, I find all “Greater ….” maps (Greater Syria, Greater Morocco, etc.) both fascinating and very problematic.     

    • Doctortiter

      The Azeris are included in the map because they used to be Iranic speakers, until Turkification ensued. Genetically they are Iranian and closely related to Persian. It’s just that they lost their native tongue (which was an Iranian language very similar to Persian) all thanks to continuous invasions by Turkic warrior nomads, who somehow managed to force the majority in that region to assimilate with a minority language. It’s weird, but I can see the reason why Azeris are considered Iranian, or at least “genetic Iranians who speak a foreign (i.e. Turkic) language”.

      Anyway, Iran bought the two UAE islands from Sharjah in the 70s.

  • Kermanshahi

    As the maker of this map, I just wanted to evaluate on why exactly these borders. First of all it was made to include all Iranic peoples (I don’t need to elaborate which ones because it already says in the map) now it is true that Azeris and Qashqai’s speak a Turkic language but they are considered Iranic by most Iranians because of their Iranian roots, and most of them consider themselves Iranian rather than Turk (although not those in Republic of Azerbaijan). The Central Asia border meanwhile is based on the Oxus (or Amu Darya) river, which was the historical border between the nations of Iran and Turan. Turkmenistan was originally Persian populated, Turkmens were moved there during 1700s as buffer against Uzbeks.

    Now I want to also note that this map is not supposed to be a representation of populations that support Iranic re-unification and I am not claiming majority of Kurds or Ossetians would want such thing. It is simply representation of the original form of Iran, without territories conquered/occupied by Iranian empires during expansion, and with territories that were invaded and occupied from us by foreign powers.

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  • mustafa

    hazara people they are not iranian ,they are turcik and mongol people

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