Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Question of Bahrain, the Three Islands and Iran

On Sunday, the Arab Summit called on Iran “to end its illegal occupation” of the islands of Abu Moussa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The summit, presided over by Syrian President Bashar Assad, also called on Iran to stop building settlements on the islands.

“The continued attempts by Iran to build settlements and conduct war-games in the territorial waters, air space, economic zones and coral reefs of the occupied islands are all acts that constitute a gross violation of the UAE sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said a communiqué issued at the end of the summit.

The communiqué urged Iran to end “acts of provocation” and summit to a negotiated settlement.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said the UAE claim over the islands was “vain and baseless” as the islands were an inseparable part of Iranian territory.

The History – In 1968, the British announced that they would formally end the protectorate status of the seven emirates of the Trucial Sheikhdoms (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm al-Quwain) as well as that of Bahrain and Qatar.

Iran had territorial claim over Bahrain and at the time of the British announcement considered Bahrain one of its provinces (the 14th Province). The Iranian government wanted the British to hand over Bahrain to Iran now that they were ending its protectorate status. Iran was challenging Bahrain’s legal rights to independence.

Bahrain joined Qatar and the seven Trucial Sheikdoms, all the nine still under British protection, to form the Federation of Arab Emirates. The FAE was to become an independent state in 1971, the departure date for the British.

Meanwhile, the British put pressure on Shah of Iran to renounce Iran’s claim over Bahrain. In late 1968, the Iranian and British representatives began to hold secret meetings in Switzerland to find a compromise.

The British proposed that Iran occupy the three islands Abu Moussa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs which had long been claimed by Iran. The Federation of Arab Emirates, with Bahrain and the Trucial Sheikdoms as members, would then accept Iran’s sovereignty over the islands. The shah agreed.

The two sides also agreed to use the good offices of UN Secretary General (U Thant) to facilitate the agreements. UN would later send a “fact-finding” mission to Bahrain and its representative would “determine” that the Bahrainis preferred independence over ties with Iran. This was a face-saving move intended for the shah, who had accepted the lesser prize of the three islands.

In 1971, however, Bahrain (along with Qatar) abandoned the Federation of Arab Emirates and in August of that year declared its independence. The Trucial Sheikdoms became the United Arab Emirates. The UAE, without Bahrain, now questioned shah’s agreement with the British and did not recognize Iranian sovereignty over the islands.

Shah was checkmated. Bahrain was now independent and the UAE was not recognizing Iran’s historical claims over the islands.

Observations - Any agreement by the shah’s government to recognize Bahrain in return for the three islands could be challenged by the sitting government in Tehran. The Bahrain and UAE sides, and their legal protector at the time – the British, did not negotiate in good faith and the results of those negotiations now can be considered null and void.

The question of Bahrain and the three islands were interwoven from the beginning and should be part of a comprehensive settlement with Iran.

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