Maritime Boundaries in the Persian Gulf: the case of Tunb and Abu Musa Islands

A summary of the text of speech by Professor Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh ( to the international symposium on Modern Boundaries of Iran – University of London – October 9-10, 2002


British Government’s announcement in January 1968 of the decision of terminating Pax-Britannica in the Persian Gulf caused a sense of urgency for closer cooperation among regional states. Settlement of territorial and boundary differences, thus, became a necessity, especially in the offshore areas where exploitation of new oilfields was expanding rapidly.

With an average depth of about 50 metres, the whole of the Gulf is an extended continental shelf, and its curved rectangular shape, puts Iranian territories on the opposite side of territories of most Arab states of the southern side.

Iran had in 1965 negotiated with Britain for delimitation of maritime areas, which established the median line of the sea as a principle upon which the continental shelf between Iran and her Arab neighbours was to be divided. It was on the basis of this principle that the subsequent maritime delimitation agreements were achieved.

In anticipation of existence of oil structures across maritime boundaries, Iran decided to enforce a provision in her continental shelf agreements with the states on the opposite side preventing inappropriate exploitation of such structures. According to this provision, which appears in all continental shelf boundary agreements, if a petroleum structure extends across the boundary and could be exploited from the other side, there should be no sub-surface well completion within 125 metres of the boundary without the mutual agreement of the two parties. The area of drilling prohibition is 500 metres with Saudi Arabia.

Ignoring United Arab Emirates' internal boundaries, the eight states littoral to the Persian Gulf need, at least, sixteen continental shelf boundaries among them. Of these only seven have been negotiated of which four are related to Iran. Two of the most complicated border issues settled in this period were those of late 1968 between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the 1971 settlement between Iran and Sharjah on Abu Musa Island. These were followed by a number of other settlements such as: continental-shelf boundary division of 1970 between Iran and Qatar; 1972 between Iran and Bahrain; 1975 between Iran and Oman and the river and inland boundary settlement between Iran and Iraq in that same year. Maritime boundaries between Iran and Kuwait, at the head of the Gulf, was covered by a draft agreement between the two sides which came about in 1962, but it is not in force because of Iraq’s continued territorial disputes with Iran and Kuwait.

In all, maritime boundaries in two areas of the Persian Gulf have not been settled. These are the north-west areas between Iran, Kuwait, and Iraq, which will be examined by Mr. Asgari: and the area between Iran and UAE because of uncertainties concerning Tunb and Abu Musa islands.

The issue of Tunbs and Abu Musa islands

In late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the British occupied a number of Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf, either directly or through assumed sovereignty for the so-called Trucial Emirates. These included Tunbs and Abu Musa as well as Qeshm, Hengam and Sirri islands.

A War Office map, presented by the British Minister in Tehran to the Shah in 1888 confirmed all these islands, as Iranian owned. Iran’s case was further strengthened with the publication in 1892 of Lord Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question in which the map also showed the islands as Iranian territory.

British fear of a Russian encroachment in the Persian Gulf intensified at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1902 a secret meeting at the British Foreign Office decided that the strategic islands at or near the Strait of Hormuz should be occupied. This decision was communicated to British political administrators in India and the Persian Gulf in a memorandum dated July 14th 1902. A year later the government of India sanctioned occupation of the islands of Tunb and Abu Musa in the name of the Sheikh of Sharjah.

Iran was on the brink of civil war and the authority of the central government was at its weakest. It took the Iranians about one year to realise what had happened. During his tour of southern ports and islands in April 1904, Director of Iranian Customs found out that the Iranian flag was replaced in Tunb and Abu Musa by the flag of the Sheikh of Sharjah. He lowered that flag and ordered the Iranian flag to be re-hoisted. He also commissioned two armed guards at Abu Musa. The Iranian flag was lowered again and the two sides decided to maintain status quo pending further negotiations.

Meanwhile, Iran continued struggles for the recovery of its islands as Iranian customs office wrote to the government in July 1927, demanding action against illegal trade by establishing observation posts on the three islands. A small fleet of Iranian navy was sent to recover Abu Musa and the two Tunbs and to put an end to the problem there.

The Anglo-Iranian Negotiations of 1928-

When Iran prepared in 1928 to take her territorial dispute with Britain to the League of Nations, the British agreed to negotiate the status of the Tunbs, Abu Musa and Sirri islands. These negotiations began in January 1929 and continued until mid-spring 1929 without much progress. Baldwin’s Conservative government was replaced in May that year by a Labour government, and Arthur Henderson replaced Chamberlain as Foreign Secretary. Henderson showed a more protective line towards Britain’s colonial role in the Persian Gulf and brought Clive’s negotiations with the Iranians on the issue of the Tunbs and Abu Musa to an abrupt end. This led the Iranians to try to recover the island in the 1930s through a series of actions.

Sheikh of Ras al-Kheimah returns the Tunb Island

In 1934 Governor of Bandar Abbas and other Iranian officials visited Greater Tunb. This visit was the result of a secret Iranian arrangement with the Sheikh of Ras al-Kheimah according to which the Sheikh lowered his flag in Greater Tunb and the Iranian flag was hoisted instead. Earlier, an Iranian warship in Tunb’s territorial waters seized a Trucial Coast dhow. These activities attracted the attention of the British who vigorously protested against what was going on in that island. The Iranian government was also orally informed that the British Government would as a last resort protect the interests of the Trucial Sheikhs by force. They intervened at the end of this episode and reversed that development.

Further Developments

When, at the end at the end of 1948, the Iranians expressed a wish to place administrative offices on Tunb and Abu Musa, the British ignored it. In 1949 there were rumours, first that Iran was preparing to refer the case to the United Nations, later that they intended to occupy the islands by force. The Iranian government subsequently received a note from the British Embassy in Tehran reminding them of ‘clear attitude’ of the British Government in that respect. The Iranians in return erected a Flagstaff on Lesser Tunb in August that year, which the Royal Navy promptly removed.

Iran’s protests and actions for the recovery of these islands continued until the British began withdrawing from the region. The issue however, was settled through negotiations that lasted throughout the year 1971 between Iran and Britain the latter acting on behalf of its protectorate emirates. This was the outcome of about 68 years of Iranian protests and demands for the return of the islands. Unlike claims by some sources, this was not an occupation but a negotiated settlement. Otherwise the British at least should have issued a statement of protest against the signing of the MoU between Iran and their protectorate Emirate of Sharjah concerning status of Abu Musa island and against Iran’s seizure of the two Tunbs.

Renewal of Claims on the islands

Iranian authorities were reported in April 1992 to have prevented a group of non-nationals from Sharjah from entering Abu Musa. The High Council of the UAE met on May 12th to discuss the issue and agreed that commitments of each member states before 1971 were to be treated as commitments of the Union as a whole.

Again reports on 24 August indicated that Iranian authorities refused entry to Abu Musa of one hundred people of different nationalities. Iranian sources made it clear that the reason for their action was that lately suspicious activities were seen in the Arab part of Abu Musa involving a number of armed individuals from other countries, including Western states.

The UAE, on the other hand, without officially denying these serious charges of breach of the 1971 MoU, accused Iran of preventing UAE nationals from entering Abu Musa demanding visas from them.

Tension began to ease towards the end of 1992, but in late December, the closing statement of the 13th summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council, announced in Abu Dhabi, called on Iran to terminate ‘occupation’ of the Tunb islands.

Some of the UAE Arguments

The following two are the main points argued by the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s response to them:

1-Priority in occupation:

The first is the argument of ‘priority in occupation’. This claim is vague and ignores the following facts:

A- Whereas the emirates appeared on the political map of the region only in 19th century, Iran was an ancient nation and was the only government in the vicinity of these islands at the time. All historical documents verify that all islands of northern half of the Persian Gulf have always belonged to Iran.

B- Ras al-Khaimeh did not exist at the turn of 20th century, and Sharjah was not, at the time, an emirate of territorial dimension to be able to claim offshore territories. The Shaikh was a tribal chief under British protection, whose authority was to the tribal people without territorial definition. One should not ignore the fact that British pretext for taking control in the Persian Gulf was to suppress the activities of the same tribes, then referred to by them as ‘pirates’ of no political entity, let alone territorial dimension.

C- In the nineteenth century, Iran had lease arrangements with Oman, according to which Fath Ali Shah in 1811 and Naser ad-Din Shah in 1856 granted the Sultan lease title to Bandar Abbas, Minab and southern Gulf coastal areas from east to west as far as Bahrain. If all these areas belonged to Iran, the islands of Abu Musa and the two Tunbs situated in its geographical centre could not have been ‘unoccupied’.

D- Iran’s sovereignty and ownership of these islands, as well as all other offshore and inland areas of the country, were traditionally established without the display of flags of identity. Marking occupation or ownership of territory by hoisting flags was a new concept introduced to the region by European powers.

E- Nevertheless, in 1887 Iran hoisted flags in Sirri and Abu Musa to mark her ownership of these islands after dismissing the Qasemi deputy governors of Bandar Lengeh.

F- Geographical documents from Arab & Islamic historians of the post-Islamic era confirm that all islands of the Persian Gulf belonged to Iran.

G- Prime Minister Haji Mirza Aqasi’s 1840s proclamation of Iran’s ownership of all islands in the Persian Gulf was not challenged by any government then or at any time thereafter.

H- An official British document verifies that after the establishment of one branch of the Qasemi family at Lengeh, the family occupied the Iranian islands, probably in the ‘confused period subsequent to the death of Nadir Shah’. This story is an admission that Tunbs, Abu Musa and Sirri islands belonged to Iran and were illegally occupied at a time when Iran in practice was leaderless.

I- More than 25 official or semi-official British maps of 18th and 19th centuries discovered by this author confirm Iran’s ownership of these islands.

J- Sir E. Beckett, legal expert of British Government at the Foreign Office (who later served as a judge at the International Court of Justice) ruled in 1932 that the Iranians possessed sovereignty over Tamb and Abu Musa in 1887-88.

2-Nineteenth-century correspondence

Apart from resorting to these old and long exhausted arguments put forward by the British during the colonial era, the UAE bases its claims over these islands on a number of letters exchanged between the Qasemis of Bandar Lengeh, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimeh. Some of these letters date as far back as 1864. They are contradictory and make fanciful claims on various localities up and down the region.

The most important of these letters was written by Shaikh Yusef Al-Qasemi of Bandar Lengeh to the Shaikh of Ras al-Khaimeh, in which the latter states: ‘the island of Tunb actually or in reality is for you’. There is little doubt about the nature of this sentence as a standard oriental compliment. A few lines below this statement, Shaikh Yusef adds a further compliment: ‘and the town of Lengeh is your town’. No one has ever been under any illusion, then or at any other time, that Port Lengeh had ever belonged to any country but Iran. When this reference to Lengeh as belonging to the Shaikh of Ras al-Khaimeh has never been and cannot be taken as anything other than a courtesy/compliment, one must ask, how could a similar reference to Tunb Island be taken literally? Certainly the expression mi case es su casa ought not to be.

When in 1929 King Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia wrote to the Sheikh of Bahrain complaining about the treatment of his subjects there, received a letter of from the Sheikh who states that “Bahrain, Qatif, Hasa and Nejd were all one and “belong to Your Majesty”. Certainly inclusion of Bahrain in that list could not have been but pure compliment.

International Reaction

International reaction to the UAE claims to the Iranian owned islands of Abu Musa and the two Tunbs has been one of impartiality in spite of ten years of campaign by Abu Dhabi for politicising and internationalising the issue. Despite the issue of routine statements by the Arab League and the GCC in support of UAE position, Arab states on the whole remain impartial and privately apologise to the Iranian authorities for ‘having to sign’ those statements. This hypocrisy clearly represents Arab scepticism of these claims, especially at a time when Arab-Iranian cooperation is high on the political agenda of both sides in the Persian Gulf.

Of the major powers in the West none has taken side in this dispute. Politicians from time to time tried to murmur support for Abu Dhabi but stopped playing games as soon as they were reminded of their government’s impartiality in the matter. This was particularly true of former UK Foreign Office Minister, Late Derrick Fatched. He stopped all the activities he had started in support of Abu Dhabi as soon as I wrote and reminded him that it was his government that negotiated and legally settled the issue of these islands with Iran in 1971.

Similarly, a recent Gulf 2000 (of Columbia University) publication, Security in the Persian Gulf, edited by Gary Seek and his deputy, Dr. Lawrence Potter, show indication of partiality in favour of UAE claims. While Iranian contribution to this book is deliberately arranged to be from non-specialist sources, Dr. Al-Alkim, the over zealous promoter of Abu Dhabi’s territorial claims against Iran is given the opportunity in his chapter, to launch even a personal attack on my contribution to the academic debate on the issue. He declared my works in proving Iran’s “claims” to Tunb and Abu Musa islands as ineffective and useless. This is done despite the fact that I wrote to Dr. Potter in advance of this publication, reminding him, in no uncertain terms, that partiality of their approach to the issue was patently obvious. Moreover, normally there is no need for any reference to a useless or ineffective work in an academic book. Not only does such remarks put academic impartiality of the book in doubt, but also implies displeasure with the effectiveness of my works, which has secured UAE’s political isolation in the region to the extend that Abu Dhabi had to abandon its anti-Iranian policies in 2002. I doubt very much that Dr. Al-Alkim has read any of my works in this regard. Once in a seminar in London I gave him a copy of my collection of facts and documents ‘The Islands of Tunb and Abu Musa’ (CNMES/ SOAS 1995), but he declined reading it. Had he read that book or any other academic work on Iran’s position vis-à-vis these islands, he would know that Iran does not “claim” these islands; Iran owns them and they are under Iranian sovereignty and control. It is only Abu Dhabi that claims these islands.

Finally, by referring to the issue as “the unfinished business”, Gary Sick and Lawrence Potter make their partiality in their treatment of the issue of UAE claims to Tunbs and Abu Musa islands blatantly clear at the beginning of their book. Considering the fact that Iran and Britain legally settled the issue through negotiations in 1971, one wanders what unfinished business they refer to? As the legal guardian of the emirates at the time, Great Britain completed the business by negotiating the legal instrument of 1971 MoU between Iran and Sharjah on Abu Musa, and by agreeing to the unconditional return of the two Tunbs to Iran. What they conveniently ignore here is the fact that if the business was unfinished in any way, Great Britain had the legal obligation of launching an official protest against Iran. Rather, we all know that UK’s permanent representative at the United Nations declared on December 9, 1971 the overall settlement of the issue of these islands as a model agreement for the settlement of similar territorial differences elsewhere in the world.

Back to top

Front Page