In 1971, as Britain prepared to grant the United Arab Emirates its independence and as British forces withdrew from the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands and Abu Musa, Iranian forces swooped in and seized the islands. While legally the islands belong to the United Arab Emirates, the United States turned a blind eye and, as per the Nixon Doctrine of embracing pivotal states, may actually have encouraged Iran, the pillar of American policy in the region at the time. (An alternate academic argument sympathetic to Iranian sovereignty can be found here.)
What once may have seemed as a stabilizing influence turned disastrous for the United States after the Islamic Revolution in Iran because of the strategic location of the islands in the Persian Gulf, and how the extension of Iranian territorial waters impacts maritime traffic.
I am currently in the Persian Gulf and have spent the last week in various countries and have been fortunate to have a number of very senior meetings with diplomatic and security officials. Attitudes and concerns of course differ between countries, but there have been a few consistencies: First, a sense that the United States is being outplayed by Iran; second, a belief that the nuclear deal being negotiated will not resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse because of the loopholes which American negotiators have allowed and so will simply legalize it; and third, real anger that the United States did not consult its allies and instead seems prepared to throw them under the bus. On this third point, the argument is not against diplomacy, but rather how the Obama administration conducts it without a sense of the region’s history, its allies’ interests, and its allies’ experience.
Because American allies remain effectively in the dark, they feel they must make accommodation with Iran in order to prepare for a post-American order. The Iranians believe they are winning, and they are eager to extract the concessions they believe their strengthened hand deserves.
Enter the disputed islands. The Iranians have been negotiating with the Emiratis for the return of the islands to UAE sovereignty. Sounds good on the surface, but the coming deal is disastrous. While Iran might evacuate the islands—not a huge deal since their population consists only of small Iranian garrisons—the Iranians would win claim to their waters, and so would maintain their military exclusion zone. In addition, the Iranians would win a facility on Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, on the other side of Iran from the strategic Strait of Hormuz. According to ArabianBusiness.com:
“Iran will retain the sea bed rights around the three islands while the UAE will hold sovereignty over the land,” they continued. “Oman will grant Iran a strategic location on Ras Musandam mountain, which is a very strategic point overlooking the whole Gulf region. “In return for Ras Musandam, Oman will receive free gas and oil from Iran once a pipeline is constructed within the coming two years,” the source added.
Perhaps the United States believes, here too, that reaching a deal trumps the substance of a deal. But any Iranian presence on Musandam should be a non-starter: It doesn’t matter what the safeguards in the deal are: possession is everything. Sultan Qaboos, the leader of Oman, is progressive and pro-Western, but he is also is aging, has no children, and so no apparent heir. When he passes away, Tehran will not only work to influence his succession, but can simply create a fait accompli while any new leader consolidates control. UAE officials, however, feel that with the United States weak and Iran strong, this is the best for which they can hope. That is the tragedy of the situation.