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Iran's Occupation of Persian Gulf Islands Rattles Neighbors

As Iran struggles to mitigate the economic and political effects of the sanctions imposed on it by the international community over its nuclear activities, Tehran is seeking allies anywhere it can. But a diplomatic spat dating back to Britain’s withdrawal from “east of Suez” has put a diplomatic chill into its relations with countries on the western side of the Persian Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates.

At issue is Iran’s occupation of the islands of Abu Musa, Tunb al-Sughra (Lesser) and Tunb al-Kubra (Greater), of which only Abu Musa is inhabited. The islets, 12 miles south of the Iranian island of Qeshm, are administered by Iran as part of Hormozgan province, but are also claimed by UAE as a territory of the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah.

Iran’s possession of the islands is a legacy from the Shah’s era, as in November 1971, shortly before the end of the British protectorate and the formation of the UAE, Iran seized control of the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa, against the resistance of the tiny Arab police force stationed there.

Now the issue is heating up again. On 16 April, the UAE summoned Iran's ambassador to Abu Dhabi to denounce a visit last week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Abu Musa, warning that the unresolved territorial dispute threatens "international security." UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash called Ahmadinejad’s visit a "violation of UAE sovereignty."

In an indication that the issue is not going away anytime soon, on 17 April the foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states met in Doha to discuss the dispute.

So, why should the rest of the world care about three sun-blasted islands in the middle of nowhere?

Because the Persian Gulf is home to approximately 60 percent of the world's proven oil and natural gas resources. The United States is the world's largest consumer of oil, importing 16 percent of its supply from the Persian Gulf, of which over 95 percent travels by sea, with an estimated 17 million barrels of oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz every day.
And to safeguard that energy, the United States relies on a large regional naval presence, including multiple aircraft carrier groups, to protect the Persian Gulf and ensure that Iran does not disrupt the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) through the Strait of Hormuz, centered on the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet based in Manama, Bahrain.

But if armed conflict does arise in the Persian, Abu Musa could soon make front-page news, as in addition to building an airstrip there, Iran has apparently deployed Chinese HY-2 "Silkworm" anti-ship missiles not along the Iranian Persian Gulf coast, but on the Abu Musa, Qeshm and Sirri islands as well.

And there is little indication that Iran is about to back down over the issue. On 18 April 225 members of the Iranian parliament issued a joint statement noting, "Raising baseless claims on the three Iranian islands by the UAE would never undermine historical realities and the rights of the Iranian nation to these islands as inseparable parts of the Islamic Republic of Iran's territory. We members of the parliament underscore that although the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that its territorial integrity and sovereignty over the islands of Abu Musa, the Lesser Tunb and the Greater Tunb are basically nonnegotiable, it welcomes direct bilateral talks with the United Arab Emirates' government in line with the two countries' friendly relations and good neighborliness in a bid to further consolidate the two nations' relations and remove possible misunderstandings."

But there may be a slight ray of sunshine in the dispute. The same day that the Iranian Parliament issued its statement, the Iranian cabinet voted to turn Abu Musa Island into a "model tourist resort," with Tourism and Handicrafts Organization (CHTHO) director Hassan Moussavi stating that CHTHO plans to provide facilities to encourage tourists to visit the island, one of the “most beautiful” islands in the Persian Gulf, “which is expected to attract lots of Iranian and foreign tourists.”

Providing they don’t trip over those Silkworms.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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  • Philip Andrews on April 19 2012 said:
    Well now whadyyah know, the Iranians could have anti-ship missiles all the way from Kharg Island to Abu Musa to Keshm.

    If I was a carrier group commander I'd be intensely anxious about the safety of all that US naval hardware in the Persian Gulf. The US might be able to launch air strikes, but all it would take would be for one a/c to be sunk by missile hits...

    Actually I doubt the Iranians would be that stupid as to intitiate a strike. Again psychologically they really do 'own' the Gulf. They can affect oil prices just by showing up in the Gulf. The Arabs can't do anything about that. The Iranians have the upper hand in the Gulf just by talking about what they could do.

    If the US plus allies launched an air campaign, Iran would survive if somewhat damaged. If Iran came even close to blocking the Straits the entire world economy would go into a tailspin... Then the Gulf would resemble a naval 'fishbarrel' rather more than a concentration of Western power.

    War really is the least profitable and effective option.
  • Hans on April 19 2012 said:
    Excellent article, Mr Daly!
  • An Iranian Citizen on April 21 2012 said:
    I'm an Iranian dissident but I warn you... if any Arab country wants to jeopardize our territorial integrity I am ready to defend my homeland shoulder to shoulder with IRGC and Basiji forces till death, these 3 islands are indispensable part of Iran regardless of the government controlling them.

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