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THE REVIVAL OF THE COLONIAL SPIRIT: The Case of the Islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs

By Kam ZarrabiIntellectual Discourse


As everyone familiar with Iran knows, the map of Iran always showed the Island of Bahrain in Iranian colors; we grew up with that concept and few of us knew anything about any claims that challenged this view.


It was the Iranian navy that drove out the Portuguese forces from the island in the 17th Century, presumably to reclaim that territory. Clearly, Iran's action against the Portuguese occupiers must have been based on some historical claims to the island of Bahrain. The Safavids also drove out the Portuguese from the coastal areas of Bandar Lengeh and Bandar Abbas, as well as the large island of Qeshm. Just before that, the Portuguese had granted these territories to their own vassal sheiks and tribal chieftains in exchange for their cooperation and loyalty.



Bahrain Island remained independent as the Safavid dynasty waned. The British ultimately replaced the Portuguese as the dominant sea power in the region and ruled the destinies of the newly sprouting sheikdoms of the southern shores of the Persian Gulf.  Iran's claim of sovereignty over Bahrain was rekindled once again by the Pahlavi regime when the British withdrew their forces from areas east of Suez. However, after the United Nations' sponsored referendum of 1970 indicated that the Bahranis preferred independence from Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi finally dropped Iran's historic claim to that island. Of course, nobody was to question the validity of the claimed referendum, or the legality of even questioning Iran's sovereignty over Bahrain, in the first place.


That was supposedly a strategic decision by Iran at the time, viewed as a positive diplomatic move toward better cooperation between the Gulf states and an opening for better trade relations and a contributing factor to regional stability as a whole.


However, the case with the small islands of Abu Musa, the Greater and the Lesser Tumbs is a different story.


The British colonial empire that replaced the Portuguese and others in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf was a different monster altogether. The British interests in the affairs of the Gulf region and beyond were far reaching and long-term. The 18th And 19th Centuries saw a weakened Iran on one side, and continued tribal rivalries and warfare in the Arabian Peninsula. The Ottoman Near East was in turmoil, and the entire area was ripe and ready for the picking.


The only obstacle of any substance that remained in the way of the British imperial reach was the Ottoman domain of influence that stretched from the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean to Suez and the Persian Gulf. Creating alliances with petty chiefs and tribal leaders along the southern shores of the Persian Gulf and its large and small islands from Bahrain in the north to the Hormuz Strait and the Arabian Sea was to ensure British control of the seaways to the Indian Ocean.


Emirates were thus carefully carved out of the southern Persian Gulf coastline, each with its ruling family or tribe, under the guardianship of the Empire. The islands that had a resident population of any size were given separate autonomy, without regard to their historic jurisdictions or geographic locations within stone's through of a sovereign nation's coastlines.



Initially it was the concern over the trade routes through the Middle East and the seaways of the Persian Gulf that facilitated Great Britain's access to and control of its interests in India and beyond. The discovery of oil around the turn of the 20th century gave a new impetus to the imperial designs.


From the standpoint of the British Empire, it was nature's mistake that had positioned most of the West's oil reserves under the wrong territories thousands of miles away! Fortunately for the British, this new wealth was found along Britain's path to India, there for the taking in the face of little resistance by disparate feudal tribes and weak regional governments.


With the discovery of oil the location of small and some even uninhabited islands suddenly gained a new significance. The control of the Strait of Hormuz and the small islands in its proximity was now of even greater strategic importance than before.


The island of Abu Musa, located almost exactly half-way between the Iranian shoreline, Bandar Lengeh, and the Emirate of Sharjah, was claimed by Sharjah when it gained independence in 1971. Since Iran had historical claims to Abu Musa, the case was arbitrated between Iran and Great Britain, and the parties agreed for Iran to maintain a military garrison on the island, while Sharjah was to administer the Arab population in the southern part of that island. Both states were to share in the newly discovered oil revenues around the island. The ultimate sovereignty of the island was left to be decided at some future time.


Clearly, this kind of ad hoc diplomacy is indicative of three factors in play at that time: 1/the political influence and dominance of Western powers in the affairs of the Middle East, 2/the faith in the Iranian government's compliance to the will of the West, and 3/the insignificance or the de facto irrelevance of the small Emirates whose very existence was owed to the British.


Well, things have changed since then. The Islamic Republic of Iran claims jurisdiction over Abu Musa and, in 1992, decided to refuse permission for non indigenous Arabs from other Emirates to land or work on the island. This, as well as the two other islands of Greater and Lesser Tumbs, have been under Iranian control for all practical matters ever since.


The two Tumb islands are situated closer to the Iranian shores and near the large Qeshm Island. Unlike Abu Musa, these small islands are of absolutely no commercial significance. The Greater Tumb does produce some red ochre (hematite), but both islands are occasioned intermittently by wayward fishermen. So when the Emirate of Ra'as al Khaymah tries to make a case for sovereignty over these islands so far from its own shores, suspicions must be raised as to the motives behind such claims; who's put them up to this?


The Emirates gained their independence only in 1971; so, any claim of sovereignty over these uninhabited and economically worthless little islands must have its roots in some other type of connection or justification. Since they are not and have not been populated by any resident populations, the only conceivable claim might be based on certain tribal or family kinship between the ruling tribe of Ra'as al Khaymah and the occasional fishermen who sometimes used the Tumbs. But, so did the Iranian fishermen from Bandar Lengeh and Qeshm, who sailed much shorter distances to these islands than did their Arab rivals!


So, what's the deal; why is the issue of sovereignty being raised at this particular time and even supported by the EU and, soon enough no doubt, by the United States? The bigger question might be; is the issue raised by the United Arab Emirates, or is it forced on by power brokers elsewhere? How is it that the West is trying to push this sovereignty issue while the economic relations between Iran and the Emirates has actually been steadily improving? Could it just be that the interests of Ra'as al Khaymah, or any other Emirate for that matter, is not the issue at all, but the reason is the current geopolitics of the Persian Gulf area?


If it is not the economic significance of these islands that is of concern, it must be their strategic positions near the vitally critical Hormuz Strait. Up trough the 1970s, it was Iran that was considered the most reliable, trustworthy and compliant ally of the West in the Persian Gulf region. The newly independent Emirates were busy with their own feuds over territorial boundaries and alliances with larger Arab neighbors. The casual or ad hoc approach of the British in addressing the disputes over the small Persian Gulf islands was in part to favor Iran's jurisdiction or guardianship, as the West's most stable ally, over the strategic Hormuz Strait.


Things are different now. The old colonial interests evolved into strategic decisions to secure and safeguard the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, and finally today, to the concerns over Iran's potential military usage of these small islands. Iran would be well advised, in fact, to station its military forces, anti aircraft and anti ship arsenal, as a measure of deterrent against threats to its national security posed and repeatedly reiterated by hostile intents. It must be of a great deal of concern for the Iranian government to know that, in addition to America's mighty naval fleet, Israel's nuclear-armed, German-made submarines are patrolling the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.


It is in such conditions that forcing Iran to abandon its sovereignty over these small islands has become yet another issue du jour.


We must add this to other excuses to pressure Iran to, for the want of a better term, capitulate. The case against Iran's alleged violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is as bogus as it can get, yet we see how the EU is continuously pressured to side with the US to haul Iran in front of the Security Council. Like other accusations against Iran, the purpose is to increase the pressure until something gives. That "something" better not be the will of the Iranian people or the resolve of the leadership who care about the safety and integrity of their homeland.


Let us not be too casual about seemingly harmless issues such as the official Pentagon renaming of the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf during the first Gulf War some twelve years ago in order, obviously, to appease the Arab Gulf states for their acceptance of the installation of American military bases on their territories; or the recent National Geographic Magazine's revisionist map of the world which had Arabian Gulf mentioned as an alternate name for the historic Persian Gulf.


Iran gave up its historical sovereignty over the important island of Bahrain, perhaps in exchange for vague promises of things with questionable historical merit. Let that be a lesson to remember. 


... Payvand News - 5/13/05 ... --

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