A Colonial Legacy
The Dispute Over the Islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs
Author: Farhang Mehr, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Boston University
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Publisher: University Press of America
This book deals with the legal status of the three islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs. In December 1971, the sixty-seven years of the Anglo-Iranian dispute over the islands transformed itself into Irano-UAE conflict – a conflict which Iran considers a colonial legacy inherited by the United Arab Emirates. The alliance of convenience between Iran and Britain cemented under Shah Abbas in the early seventeenth century had faded away by the mid-eighteenth century, after the collapse of the Safavid Dynasty.
During the nineteenth century, the Anglo-Iranian relationship evolved into mutual distrust and resentment. For the British, Iran and Afghanistan were the first lines of India’s defense, and the Persian Gulf was the gate to India. During the nineteenth century, British hegemony in the Persian Gulf was threatened primarily by European powers (France and Russia), by regional powers (the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, the Wahhabi Saudis and Iran), and by piratical Arab tribes. France coveted the Indian sub-continent, Russia desired access to warm water, and the Ottoman empire craved possession of the Arab territories.
Meanwhile, Iran wanted the restoration of her sovereignty over the Persian Gulf islands, the Saudis sought the conversion of Muslims to the Messianic Wahhahi faith and local Arab tribes employed their maritime skill to assail and plunder the merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf.
With the Iranian governments increasingly fragile following the assassination of Nader Shah in 1750, the bases and privileges which had been granted to the British and the East India Company under Shah Abbas were no longer of any practical value, weakening Britain’s clout. The invasion of Iran in the early nineteenth century and the annexation of Iranian Caucasian territory gave Russia an advanced post towards India, while the failure of the British to assist Iran under the 1801, 1809, and 1814 treaties intensified Iran’s mistrust.
Furthermore, the British change of policy towards the Irano-Afghan conflict over Herat — from inciting Iran to attack Herat in 1798, to pledging neutrality in 1814, to seizing the island of Kharq and Bushehr in 1851 in order to force Iran to retreat from Herat — all had deepened Iran’s indignation. The Irano-British war of 1856-57, the proclamation of Jihad by Naser al-Din Shah against the British in 1857 heightened the mutual animosity. The British suspected Iran to be playing into the Russians’ hands, and Iran believed that Britain was fortifying her interests in the region at the expense of Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
By the nineteenth century, the problems of Iran, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf were entangled and the British wanted the region to be either under her influence or completely neutralized. In 1847, the protection of British interests in Iran and Afghanistan was transferred from London to Bombay, reflecting the sensitivity of the region to the security of India. There was an additional reason for British uneasiness with Iran related to the British desire to acquire a military base in the Persian Gulf. Local pirates had long endangered the safety of trade routes in the area. The British speculated that the acquisition of a military base would enable them to launch immediate retributive military expeditions against the perpetrators whenever a maritime crime was committed. Iran adamantly denied cooperation. The British preference was directed towards the three Persian islands of Qishm, Hanjam, and Khark. Having failed to obtain Iran’s consent, the British tried to forge evidence in favor of Oman’s ownership of Qishm and the alleged “inherited rights” of the Imam of Muscat. In the meantime, the British adopted the carrot-and-stick policy toward Iran. The British emissary in Teheran told the Shah that, should Iran allow the British to have a base in Qishm, the British government would, in return, use her influence to restore Iran’s suzerains over Bahrain, but if Iran still denied their request for the base, the British might question the rights and title of the Shah to the islands in the Persian Gulf.
Indeed, this was the policy that Britain pursued in 1904 with regard to the three disputed islands of Abu Musa, and the two Tumbs. The acquisition of a military base seemed so important to Britain that the Governor-General of India said “Britain should retain Khark at any cost, the island could become the Singapore of the Persian Gulf”. At the same time, Britain’s enhanced mistrust of Iran prompted Palxnerston, the British Prime Minister to state that “Persia for many years was deemed our barrier of defense for India against Russia. We must now look upon Persia as the advance guard for Russia. “As an alternative to a military base, the British devised a plan to broker a “Treaty of Maritime Peace in Perpetuity” between the Arab sheikhs after a retributive military expedition against the piratical Qawasim in 1853. Britain forced the sheikhs to sign “Exclusive” and “Nonalienation” agreements in her favor, thus depriving the sheikhs of their ability to engage in international relations and to grant mining rights or other concessions to any outside agents. This is how the Trucial States, as British protectorates, emerged.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain had already tightened her grip on the Trucial States and Oman. In 1898, Iran hired Belgian administrators to modernized Iran’s customs offices; and in 1901 used the customs revenue as collateral for several large loans obtained from Russia. Thus, the Russians gained the privilege of influencing tariffs and working closely with the Belgian officers, who gradually became “Proteges and agents of the Russian government”. Hence, in 1903 when Iran decided to establish Customs offices in Abu Musa and the Tumbs, the British, as guardians of the sheiks’ rights, prevented Iran’s exercise of sovereignty over the islands and claimed that the Qawasim Sheikhs of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah had “inherited rights” in the islands. At this juncture the overt Anglo-Iranian conflict erupted.
Iran has always considered the dispute over the three islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs a “colonial issue” — the British colonial legacy inherited by the British wards (the Sheikhs of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah) and now by the United Arab Emirates. Before the British military withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in December 1971, Iran exerted every effort to resolve the conflict peacefully, in order to avoid an Arab-Iranian polarization in the Persian Gulf. Iran argued that an imperial power should not be allowed to allocate parts of Iran’s territory to her colonial wards. Iran bases her claim on historical facts and map evidence.
The Sheikhs of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah base their plaints on tribal patrimony. Both parties have also resorted to the rules of International Law on acquisition of land. Currently Iran regards the issue as purely an internal matter, rejecting the jurisdiction of the International Court and has no intention of submitting the case to arbitration. However, she has agreed to open dialogue on the subject with the United Arab Emirates, within which federation the two sheikhdoms have been integrated since December 1971. The United Arab Emirates prefers to submit the issue to the International Court at Hague. The matter is complex, particularly because material facts and evidence, relating to a very short span of time in the nineteenth century, are ambiguous and debatable. British Colonial interests and past interventions have marred the evidence.
Hence, clarification of the material facts and the choice of applicable law form the crux of the present study. This is a multidisciplinary study, dealing with geography, history, economics, politics, international relations and law.