Last week, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah blasted Iran’s claims of ownership over three islands in the Persian Gulf, comparing the situation to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land:
Occupation of any Arab land is occupation … Israeli occupation of Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, West Bank or Gaza is called occupation and no Arab land is dearer than another.
The Persian Gulf Cooperation Council Ministers have supported the United Arab Emirates claim recently of Iran “occupying” three islands in the Persian Gulf: the Greater Tunb, the Lesser Tunb and Abu Moussa. But Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast says the three islands “are inseparable parts of the Iranian territory.”
The dispute over these islands is nothing new, dating back more than a century to the era of British colonialism. In 1888, the British Minister confirmed to the Shah of Iran that the islands belong to Iran. Later in 1903-04, when Iran was on the brink of civil war, the Sheikh of Sharjah took the opportunity to claim the islands for himself. The dispute continued throughout the 20th Century, when the islands were formally returned to Iran in November 1971 through a legal procedure that occurred before the creation of the UAE as a state.
Despite Iran and the UAE’s strong trade relations, the two have maintained no formal diplomatic relations since 2008, when Iran installed maritime offices on one of the disputed islands.
The GCC has urged Tehran to engage in direct talks or go to the International Court of Justice to resolve the issue. The downside of going to the ICJ is that it has no way to enforce its decisions, so whatever the outcome turns out to be, the parties may decide not to abide by the result. Yet this is precisely the sort of international incident that the ICJ was created to resolve. So one could be forgiven for just wishing the two countries would just grow up and settle their dispute like reasonable members of the international community.
It’s easy to understand why this issue is so vexing for Iran and the UAE: as with so much else it’s all about oil. These islands more than likely have oil reserves that any country would want to claim for itself.
However, comparing the dispute over the Gulf islands to the Israeli occupation isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, it will only cause the two parties to dig their heels in further, as their pride and egos get in the way of any real settlement. But all of this only postpones the inevitable: some day, Iran and the UAE are going to have to act like adults and find a peaceful way to settle this argument.
Until then, they should knock this type of rhetoric off.