Border disputes

Print edition : November 24, 2017
The book provides vital clues to understanding the situation in the Gulf region.

THIS excellently produced book, in the good tradition of the publishers, I.B. Tauris, is very relevant to our situation, locked as we are in boundary disputes. More, it provides vital clues to understanding the situation in the Gulf region with Saudi Arabia mounting a disgraceful confrontation against Qatar.

Husain M. Albaharna’s classic The Arabian Gulf States is a study of their legal and political status and their international problems. The scholar Farzad Cyrus Sharifi-Yazdi pursues the study further by analysing a vital element in territorial disputes that we in India tend to neglect, namely, that they arouse hubris. The element of prestige makes the dispute a power play, which impedes and even foils efforts at settlement.

There is another aspect that the West conveniently overlooks now in its arrogant campaign to isolate and harm Iran. The Shah’s policies on boundary disputes were far more arrogant than those of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

President John F. Kennedy aptly said at American University on June 10, 1963: “World Peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbour—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbours.” Infusion of prestige in the contest renders a sound approach impossible. This book focusses largely, though not exclusively, on sources pertaining to the policy orientations and decisions of official decision-makers on Tehran (that is, “the Shah and his close associates”) with respect to the issues of Bahrain, Shatt al-Arab and the Tunbs and Abu Musa islands between 1957 and 1969. Moreover, it scrutinises the conduct of the disputes in this period, which in part was a product of the given Iranian policy orientations and decisions under the Shah. Iran abandoned its claim to Bahrain in 1969. In 1975, it settled the Shatt al-Arab dispute with Iraq. The Shah occupied the islands of Tunbs and Aba Musa in November 1971. The dispute over them festers still. The facts as narrated by the author are simple.

“The island of Abu Musa has an area of 20 km and a permanent population of some 2,500 whilst the greater Tunb has an area of approximately 10 km (no reliable figures on the population of the island are available). The Lesser Tunb is an uninhabitable 35 m high rock with an area of approximately 2 km. Dispute over the three islands originated in the early nineteenth century and came to involve Iran, Britain and the British-protected (up until 1971) sheikhdoms of Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah; with Britain having occupied Abu Musa on behalf of (so it claimed) Sharjah and the Tunbs on behalf of Ras al Khaimah in the 1820s. From the early twentieth century Tehran periodically began to assert a claim to the islands, arguing that before Britain had seized the islands, they had been under Iranian sovereignty. Following the announcement by Britain in 1968 that it would be withdrawing from the Persian Gulf by 1971, on-going Anglo-Iranian negotiations over the fate of the islands, amongst other issues, were stepped up. On 30 November 1971—a day before Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah joined with seven other lower Persian Gulf sheikhdoms to form the United Arab Emirates and only days before Britain vacated Persian Gulf waters—Iranian forces landed on and took control of Abu Musa under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding arrived at by Iran and the Ruler of Sharjah through British auspices.… A day earlier, Iranian forces also landed on and gained control of the Tunbs, despite not having reached any agreement with the Sheikh of Ras al Khaimah.… The matter essentially became dormant throughout the 1970s and 1980s.” It was revived in 1992 for political reasons.

The book is based on archival research in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and in several places in the U.S. Iran’s power projection began with the Shah with tacit U.S. support. The author emphasises the Shah’s “hegemonistic” approach in the disputes.

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