By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea
The Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu-Musa Islands are situated near the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, south of Iran. The Lesser Tunb is 22 miles from the mainland of Iran. The Greater Tunb is 17 miles from the Iranian land. Both of them are not able to sustain living and they had never inhabitants. Abu- Musa is the home for a limited number of people (less than 50 households). The Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu-Musa Islands have been part of Iran since the times immemorial. In the Nineteenth Century, they were parts of the "Lengheh Territory" that was itself an administrative section of the Fars Province of Iran.
Sovereignty of Iran over these Islands have been recorded in many books, historical documents, almanacs, maritime journals, geographical maps (that show the three concerned islands in the color of the Iranian mainland), official documents, administrative reports, the officials notes of the British authorities in India and so on. The British authorities created some difficulties for the Iranian governments in the case of the Iranian control of these Islands during the early Twentieth Century. The actions of the British officials were always facing protests by the Iranian local and state authorities.
In 1968 the British decided to withdraw from the East of Sues by 1971. The British made a package deal with Iran according to which Iran stopped its demand for restoration of its sovereignty over Bahrain, and take back its three islands of The Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu-Musa Islands. Only in the case of Abu-Musa, Iran accepted to give some advantages to the Sheikdom of Sharejeh. The Iranian government accepted this formula only in the hope of supporting the small states of the Persian Gulf and giving them a chance of getting independence. The British authorities were the only officials that Iran made the arrangements with them because at that time the states like the UAE were not established yet. The Shah of Iran faced a great difficulty in making the people of Iran ready for such arrangement and some political groups never accepted that.
It is interesting that following the restoration of the Iranian sovereignty over the three islands, three Arab countries complained against Iran in the United Nations Security Council. The United Arab Emirates (which had been formed of several Sheikhdoms with the support of Iran) was not one of them. Egypt, Iraq and Libya were the parties to the dispute. They claimed that Iran has occupied part of the Arab lands. The reason was that Egypt under the control of Jamal Abdul-Nasser (the fabricator of the name of the Arabian Gulf), and Iraq, and Libya were thinking that they were the main leaders of the Arab world and they were pretending that they acted as the representative of the Arabs. However, the UNSC heard the explanations of the parties and after hearing the report of the British representative that implicitly referred to the "package deal", the UNSC deleted the issue from its agenda.
It is also interesting that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, after attacking Iran in 1980 and capturing a part of the Iranian territory in the border of Iran-and Iraq declared that if Iran wanted peace, it must accept several conditions, including the withdrawal of Iranian forces from the three islands of the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu-Musa. (The most important part of the other conditions was abrogation of the 1975 treaty between Iran and Iraq which designated the Thalweg line or the most navigable canal in the Arvandrood as the border of the two countries).
Saddam dropped the condition when the Iranian forces pushed the Iraqis back and entered the Iraqi territory. Since then the Arab States at Persian Gulf has repeatedly claimed that Iran should hand over the three islands to them. They have succeeded to get the backing of the Arab League. Also, during the last several years they have recruited some of the top research institutes and legal experts in Western world for finding grounds for their claims in the international law and politics.
The British are playing a two-sided and mostly anti-Iranian game in these regards. They have already cast doubt on one of the most important sources of Iran's claim by saying that the old map of the British Authorities in India (the map that was formally presented to Iranian officials as the expression of the maritime situation in the region and it showed the three concerned islands in the color of mainland Iran) was not official. Also, they are not ready to give clear explanations about the "package deal" that resulted in Iran's withdrawal of claims over Bahrain and get its sovereignty back in the three islands.
In fact the story of Bahrain's independence was a clear indication of the package deal. For the same reason the UAE's advocates have always tried to deny the existence of the package deal between Iran and the British authorities that led to the independence of Bahrain, UAE and restoration of Iranian rights in the Persian Gulf over the Tunbs and Abu-Musa.
Following the package deal in 1968, the case of Bahrain was put in the agenda of the United Nations. The United Nations chose a representative on the issue of Bahrain. He traveled to Bahrain and talked to several people in streets and later reported to the UN that the people of Bahrain wanted inexpedience. There was no referendum, public inquiry, research work or even a simple random sampling in the standard model. It was not clear that how the UN representative had reached such a conviction that the people of Bahrain wanted independence, while more than half of the people of Bahrain were Iranians and they wished to remain Iranian. However, due to the fact that the "package deal" was there, the UN did not go through such questions and accepted that Bahrain should be independent. Following this development the representatives of the Western states, especially the British officials, thanked Iran for the peace loving actions and understanding the international situation.
Although the government of Iran succeeded to get two resolutions from the United Nations to officially recognize that the body of water in the south of Iran was " Persian Gulf" (UNAD 311/Qen dated March 5, 1971, and UNLA 45.8.2 (C) dated August 10, 1984,) no Arab country has accepted to use the correct name of the Persian Gulf. At the same time, the conditions of Iranian government at the moment are very much different from those years and the regime of the Islamic Republic is so isolated and disrespected in the international forums that one cannot expect to get a vote in favor of Iran, despite all existing documents and evidences.
An article from the book: Bahman Aghai Diba, Iran and the International Law of the Seas and Rivers, Amazon, 2011
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