Unresolved Territorial Disputes: The Tunbs and Abu Musa in the Gulf

Last week, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed,  renewed his country’s demand for the restoration of sovereignty over three islands in the Persian Gulf region. "My Government expresses, once again, its regret regarding the continued Iranian occupation of our three islands – Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, and demands the restoration of the UAE’s full sovereignty over these islands. We, therefore, call upon the international community to urge Iran to respond to the repeated peaceful, sincere calls of the United Arab Emirates for a just settlement of this issue, either through direct, serious negotiations or by referral to the International Court of Justice", he stated. Responding to the statement by the UAE, Iran’s representative reiterated his country’s full sovereignty over the islands and categorically rejected any claims to the contrary.


Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs and Lesser Tunbs are three small islands located along the mid-point of the Persian Gulf near the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in a potentially oil-rich area.  The main shipping and tanker channel in and out of the Persian Gulf lies between Abu Musa and the Iranian-controlled islands of Greater and Lesser Tonbs.

In 1968, Great Britain announced that it would withdraw from the Gulf region in 1971. In 1971 the island of Abu Musa was divided between Iran and the emirate of Sharjah in a memorandum of understanding (MoU). The MoU provided for joint administration on the islands and a division of resources.  On November 30, Iran sent military forces to Abu Musa in accordance with the MoU, however Iran also took control of the two nearby Tunb islands. Iran has occupied them ever since.

The legal dispute about ownership and sovereignty of the three islands is based on rival historical claims by both sides.

Point of view of Iran

Iran's claims to possession and control of the islands goes back to centuries BC until the advent of British imperial rule.  A further Iranian claim is based on the fact that a section of the Arab Qasimi tribe which ruled the Tunbs and Abu Musa between 1872 and 1887, became Persian subjects before their administration of the islands. Iran further held that the emirate of Sharjah, who administers the island Abu Musa, and the emirate sheik of Ras al Khaimah, who administers the Tunbs, could not legally occupy the islands, as Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah were not a state and therefore could not acquire territory under international law (in december 1971 the six emirates under which Sharjah declared their independence from Bitain and called themselves the United Arab Emirates, Ras al Khaimah joined the UAE in February 1972).

Dr. Bahman Aghai Diba,  a former Iranian diplomat, writes in his book  Iran and the International Law of the Sea and Rivers that the British made a package deal with Iran, according to which Iran stopped its demand for the restoration of its sovereignty over Bahrein (which declared its independence on the 15th of August 1971) and take back its three islands. Amir Asadollah Alah, the Shah's Minister of Court, confirms this view in his memoirs, however Ardeshi Zahedi, the Shah's Foreign Minister of Iran between 1966-1973, writes that "I must emphasise that there is no link between the resolution of the Bahrein dispute and the three islands".

Point of View of the United Arab Emirates

On 24 September 2013 the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, H.E. Abdalla Hamdan Alnaqbi, visited the Peace Palace Library and generously donated a publication entitled: The Three Occupied UAE Islands, The Tunbs and Abu Musa, written by Thomas R. Mattair. Mr. Mattair says Sharjah signed the MoU under duress, therefore making it invalid. "The Shah (of Iran) was on record many times as indicating that if he couldn’t get the islands any other way, he would take the islands by force and he talked about the military assets he had that would enable him to do that", Mattair said. "So the ruler of Sharjah signed the MoU under those circumstances, and he was right to be afraid that Abu Musa would be taken by force, because when his counterpart, the ruler of Ras Al-Khaimah did not sign an agreement with Iran, Iran did use force to take the Tunbs islands as well".

The United Arab Emirates claim that the Qasimi tribe possessed en exercised control over the islands since at least the mid-1700s. This enables them and the UAE to assert their title on the basis of the legal principle of prescription or long and peaceful possession, Mattair writes. The UAE further claim that the Qasimi tribe were acting on their behalf and not as Iranian subjects when administering the islands.

Dispute Settlement 

Four Arab countries—Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen—in 1971 requested the U.N. Security Council to discuss the situation, but the Council decided to "defer consideration of the matter to a later date, allowing time for thorough third-party efforts to materialize". The matter has not been taken up by the Council since. How can the conflict be resolved? The first is for the two parties to engage in direct bilateral discussions . The UAE has set no preconditions on the offer to hold such discussions, apart from stating the necessity of laying down a fixed time limit for their conclusion. Bilateral talks, when occurring, have however not led to any meaningful resolution. The second option is to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which has both the legal competence and the experience to deal with territorial disputes. A condition for a dispute being taken up by the ICJ is however that all parties consent. The UAE has signalled its intention to go to court several times, but Iran has always dismissed the notion.

The conciliatory noises coming out of Iran in the past weeks have been encouraging, but as Kaiyan Homi Kaikobad, a late specialist in the title to territory wrote, "questions of pretentions to territory can be extremely complex and will defy easy, confident analysis, not least because the facts themselves can be mired in controversy". 

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