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BILAL Y. SAAB is Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.See more by this author
On January 15, Defense News, an online and print military newspaper, reported that Iran and the United Arab Emirates had reached an agreement on the disputed islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The report quoted an unnamed high-level UAE source, who said that although a deal on Abu Musa, the largest of the three islands, was still being negotiated, the status of the other two had been “finalized,” and that both would return to the UAE.
Such a deal could be historic. The islands are located near the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. In fact, the main shipping and tanker channel in and out of the Gulf lies between Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs, making them hugely important for the global economy. Control over the islands has long been a major source of tension between Iran and the UAE. Iran claims that all three islands were Iranian territory until the British occupied them in 1908. The UAE argues that, for centuries, most of Abu Musa’s inhabitants have been Arab, so the islands should rightfully belong to the UAE. Since a 1971 memorandum of understanding, Abu Musa has been divided between Iran and the emirate of Sharjah. The memorandum stipulates that Iran and Sharjah would jointly administer the island and divide its resources. Shortly before the document was signed, Iran took control of the other two islands, and has occupied them ever since. The UAE presented its own claims to the United Nations Security Council in 1980, but to no avail.