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Iran: Islands Dispute Unlikely To Disrupt Improving UAE Ties

By Charles Recknagel/William Samii

The visit by a high-ranking delegation from the United Arab Emirates to Iran early this week focused renewed attention on the two countries' long-standing disagreement over the ownership of three strategically located islands in the Gulf. The visit did not include the islands as a talking point and made no apparent headway toward finding a solution. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the event did show that both the countries are determined to seek improved relations despite their disagreement.

Prague, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The stated reason behind Monday's (23 July) visit to Iran of a small delegation led by the United Arab Emirate's minister of state for foreign affairs was to congratulate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on his re-election.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan came to Iran accompanied by the UAE's Information and Culture Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan and Interior Ministry undersecretary Sheikh Seif bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan -- all of whom are sons of President Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan.

The visit is the latest in a series of back-and-forth trips by Gulf Arab and Iranian officials as the two sides have pursued a warming of relations since Khatami's first-term election in 1997. Both sides appear eager to repair damage done to ties during the 1980s, when Gulf states feared the Islamic Republic was exporting its revolution and Iran fought an eight-year war with Iraq, which was backed by most Arab states. The Gulf Arab states have also come to regard Iran as less of a regional threat than Iraq since Baghdad invaded Kuwait in 1991, sparking the Gulf War.

But ties between the UAE and Iran remain complicated by a dispute over three islands which lie between them near the Strait of Hormuz. The islands -- Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs -- are held by Iran but claimed by the UAE in a centuries-old dispute that has yet to show any signs of nearing resolution.

That pattern remained true during the UAE delegation's visit to Tehran this week. A day after the visit, the UAE's official WAM news agency quoted Sheikh Hamdan as saying that he and Khatami had conducted "comfortable" talks in which the islands dispute did not come up. Before his visit, some Gulf newspapers had described the visit as an attempt only to "break the psychological barrier" over the issue of the islands by building better relations.

The UAE has previously said it wants the territorial dispute resolved through direct talks or the International Court of Justice. But Iran has rejected any mediation or arbitration, saying it is willing to talk to the UAE only to clear up what it calls "misunderstandings."

RFE/RL recently spoke with Brooks Wrampelmeier, a retired senior U.S. foreign service officer with long experience in the Gulf region. Asked to describe the history of the islands dispute and how it affects relations between the UAE and Iran, Wrampelmeier said that the dispute dates back to the 18th century, when members of the Arab Qawasim tribe, which inhabits parts of what is now the UAE, also lived on the islands and on the Iranian coast.

At the time, the Iranian Shah considered the tribe members living in Iran and on the islands as his subjects, and thus laid claim to the islands, as did the Qawasimi rulers.

Wrampelmeier says that the islands dispute had little importance during most of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the British protected the Gulf states. London, Wrampelmeier says, guarded the islands as part of its efforts to guarantee its shipping routes between the Gulf and India:

"The British agreed that [the Tunbs belonged to Ras al Khaimah and Abu Musa belonged to Sharjah] (both are member emirates of the UAE). The Iranians had, I think, put forward claims at various times to the islands but were unsuccessful in doing anything about it until the British ended their protection of the Gulf states, which began with a decision in 1968 to withdraw."

He continues:

"Just before [the British] officially terminated their protectorate role in 1971, the Shah sent his troops and police to occupy the three islands, the claims being by Iran that these had traditionally been Iranian islands -- just as they had always claimed that Bahrain was an Iranian island. The question of Bahrain, of course, had been decided by the Shah's agreement to have a UN plebiscite there and the Shah rather gracefully gave up on Bahrain. But he dug in his heels on Abu Musa and the Tunbs on the grounds that control of these islands was essential to protection of Iran's routes of transport through the Gulf."

Analysts say that sovereignty over the islands is also of importance in defining some oil concessions in the Gulf, though this issue is considered less pressing for energy-rich Iran than for the UAE.

Currently, an Iranian garrison is based on Abu Musa, along with a small population of local Arab fishermen, who have returned after an initial move by Tehran to expel them in the early 1990s. The two Tunbs, always sparsely inhabited, are reported to have no remaining local population.

But if Iran and the UAE today remain at odds over the islands' ownership -- and even engage in heated rhetoric over the subject -- many analysts say the issue is unlikely to impair the improving relations between Iran and the UAE and other Gulf Arab states. The UAE's claim to the islands is supported by its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

As a measure of the generally good ties between Tehran and the UAE, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has estimated that annual trade between the two countries stands at $1.8 billion. Hundreds of Iranian companies are active in the emirates' free-trade zones, and in June, Tehran hosted a UAE trade exhibition. Iran also has a diplomatic presence in the emirates.

Wrampelmeier says that even as the UAE calls for the return of the islands, there is little desire in the emirates or its GCC partners for any showdown over the islands which might jeopardize better trade and political relations overall.

"Dubai (an emirate in the UAE) has its own trading interests with Iran and has not felt as strongly about the islands as Sharjah or Ras al Khaimah has. And I think Dubai has tried, if anything, to make sure that the dispute over the islands does not end up harming its own economic interests."

He continues:

"The GCC is taking its position [of supporting the UAE's territorial claim] because this is something about which the UAE feels fairly strongly. I think they are going to make sure that it continues to be an issue that is brought up, their hope being that at some point maybe the Iranians will finally decide, 'well, let's settle this in some way' [but] without expecting that this is going to happen anytime in the near future."

The UAE has voiced just that hope as it has congratulated Khatami on his second term. Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sultan bin Zayid al-Nuhayyan said just prior to the emirate delegation's visit to Tehran this week that the UAE "hopes the new [Iranian] leadership will have a better chance to reach an acceptable settlement [either] through serious bilateral dialogue or by referring the case to the International Court of Justice."

Khatami himself has only said he hopes this week's visit marks a "turning point in the two countries' relations and leads to a flourishing of ties."