The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran’s unresolved 52-year-old territorial dispute over three islands near the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz has recently heated up.
Against the backdrop of the UAE beginning its cautious outreach to Iran in 2019 and then sending its ambassador back to Tehran a year ago, exacerbated tensions over these islands — Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa — will likely complicate the Emirati-Iranian rapprochement and regional diplomacy. However, the parties appear disposed to prevent this tension from spiraling out of control. Both countries want to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf.
The dispute has a history. The British occupied the islands from 1908 until November 30, 1971, when the then-Shah of Iran deployed his country’s navy to seize control of them the day before the UAE gained its independence from London. The UAE and other Arab states have always viewed Iran’s occupation of the islands as illegal, which Tehran dismisses as an Emirati “misunderstanding.” Iran believes the West encourages the UAE to raise this issue as part of broader U.S.-led efforts to pressure the Islamic Republic and weaken Iran’s military posture in the Persian Gulf.
Officials in Tehran maintain that the islands belonged to successive Persian empires, while their Emirati counterparts claim that Arab traders ruled Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa for centuries before the British arrived. The three islands themselves are barren. Greater and Lesser Tunbs are uninhabited, while Abu Musa is home to approximately 2,000 permanent civilian residents.
In 1972, there were 800 natives on Abu Musa, mostly Arabs descended from the Qasimi tribe, though “a few unskilled Iranian laborers arrived” after Iran seized it. Abu Musa’s Emirati residents have complained that Iran’s government has altered the island’s demographics by moving in Iranian “settlers” to the point where Iranians now far outnumber Emirati citizens and expatriates on Abu Musa. Media outlets in the UAE have reported that Iranian authorities in Abu Musa routinely harass Emiratis and expatriates on the island to try to pressure them into leaving.
The islands are also strategically valuable to both sides due to their location near the Strait of Hormuz. Whichever country controls Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa can dominate the sea lanes coming in and out of the Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) used Abu Musa to mount attacks during the “Tanker War” (1984-88).
By 1992, the Iranians began making their military presence on the islands more permanent. At that time, Abu Dhabi sought to deal with this issue by engaging Iran directly in bilateral talks. By 2006, however, the UAE began pursuing a new strategy designed to internationalize the dispute. By capitalizing on Iran’s relative isolation on the international stage, Abu Dhabi has attempted to gain greater support from powerful countries for its claim.
But Iran has been uncompromising in its claim to absolute sovereignty. In September last year, the UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem al-Hashimy told the UN General Assembly, “We will never relent in voicing our claim to these islands either through direct negotiations or through the International Court of Justice, as is our legitimate right.”
Enter Beijing and Moscow
Last December, China and the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a joint statement calling for a diplomatic settlement to this dispute, upsetting officials in Tehran who perceived the statement as challenging Iran’s territorial integrity. The Iranian foreign ministry summoned China’s ambassador in Tehran to express its “strong dissatisfaction.” Last month, Russia and the GCC issued their own joint statement, which also called for settling Abu Dhabi and Tehran’s islands dispute through diplomacy, a move that also resulted in a similar formal protest despite the increasingly close relations between Tehran and Moscow since the outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As August dawned, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps kicked off military exercises off Abu Musa’s coast, apparently to demonstrate the country’s readiness to defend Tehran’s control. The IRGC deployed missiles, drones, vehicles, aircraft, and vessels to flex its muscles. According to Iranian state media, the IRGC Navy unveiled a vessel capable of firing missiles with a range of 372 miles — a much greater distance than Iran’s Fath ballistic missiles and Ghadir cruise missiles already deployed on the islands.
These exercises alarmed many Emiratis, some of whom accuse Tehran of undermining the region’s move toward de-escalation. “I think the UAE should take this provocative and irresponsible military exercise to the UNSC [UN Security Council] since it constitutes a threat not only to Gulf security, but also to international security,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist, told RS. “This is the right time to go to the UNSC since the UAE has now Russia and China fully understanding that Iran has to resolve this dispute diplomatically,” he added.
Iran has three main motivations for its latest show of force.
First, the U.S. has been bolstering its military presence in and near the Strait of Hormuz substantially, and the IRGC exercises appear aimed at sending a message to Washington that Iran will not be intimidated. “Iran wants to establish deterrence against recent U.S. military deployments in the face of IRGC saber rattling in the Gulf,” Ahmed Aboudouh, an Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House, told RS.
Second, President Ebrahim Raisi’s intensified “Look East” policy has been criticized by many Iranians who argue that it has “created this image or perception … that Iran is, to an unprecedented level, reliant on China and Russia,” Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told RS. “So, Iran also wants to say that this is not true. Iran is ready to defend its sovereignty and its territorial rights over these three islands” despite China and Russia’s positions.
In an interview with RS, Abdolrasool Divsallar at the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan said Tehran sees “Russia as completely irrelevant” vis-à-vis the status of these three islands. “[Iran’s] military maneuver is again another signal for that. The Chinese position is somehow different because China has a different type of leverage over Iran,” he added. Nonetheless, “the Iranian response is very much homogeneous regarding both of these actors…Iran genuinely sees no [role for] intervention of other external powers in this particular case.”
Third, the exercises clearly signal to Abu Dhabi and its Arab neighbors that, despite their recent rapprochement, which experts largely attribute to Tehran’s need to circumvent the West’s economic sanctions and attract badly needed foreign investment, Iran has no intention of softening its stance on the islands.
Despite the improvements in UAE-Iran relations since 2019, there are underlying tensions lingering in bilateral affairs, as well as in Iran’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait such as the al-Durra/Arash Gas Field dispute. These ongoing points of contention will test Tehran’s recent rapprochements with GCC members.
“By showing force, Iran wants to emphasize that…regional diplomacy and the desire to sort of improve relations with neighbors doesn’t mean that Iran would ignore its territorial claims or would be somehow more compromising on those issues,” explained Azizi. “But, on the other hand, this is another sign that the normalization agreements…could be just the start of a long and complicated process. The sources of disagreements and differences between Iran and its neighbors are complex and multilayered. Simply a diplomatic agreement cannot remove those issues overnight.”
The tensions over the islands highlight the fragility of the diplomatic processes underway in the Middle East. But experts do not expect Iran and the UAE’s claims over these islands or Iran’s show of force to lead to any direct confrontation between the two countries. Tehran and Abu Dhabi “seem to compartmentalize the bilateral diplomatic rapprochement from the islands issue,” said Aboudouh. “Since exchanging ambassadors last year, regular communications between both sides have been designed to establish guardrails around the islands dispute and prevent it from affecting other improving aspects of the relations.”