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Small Island, Huge Stakes: the Dispute between Iran and the UAE for Abu Musa

Small Island, Huge Stakes: the Dispute between Iran and the UAE for Abu Musa

Abu Musa is a small island situated in the Persian Gulf whose strategic position allows the power that controls it to influence the maritime traffic that passes through the Strait of Hormuz. This characteristic made it the point of contention between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, both states actively claiming their sovereignty over the island along with its sister islands of the Greater and Lesser Tunb.

Iran is the de-facto ruler of these important islands since 1971, when it orchestrated their invasion at a time when they were in the possession of the Emirate of Sharjah, now part of the United Arab Emirates (Mobley, 2003). Regarding the island of Abu Musa, Iran maintains that the territory is an inalienable part of the state, refusing any kind of negotiations that imply otherwise. In turn, the UAE continues to claim the islands as part of the Emirate of Sharjah, which is one the Emirates composing it, and alongside other actors, advocates for negotiating a diplomatic solution to this dispute. 

The geostrategic pivots of the Persian Gulf 

The importance of the three islands – the Abu Musa, the Greater Tunb and the Lesser Tunb – is mainly given by the advantageous geostrategic position they hold in the Persian Gulf, specifically in the perimeter of the Strait of Hormuz. These islands form a corridor for naval trade in the region, which means that their possession is an important asset both powers want to acquire. From an economic point of view, the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and Iran has exponentially raised the importance of these islets. Approximately 40% of the world’s oil trade passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, the island of Abu Musa appears to have abundant oil and gas resources in its territorial waters. The islands also hold significant military potential due to their position. Military bases located here could exert immense control over all traffic going in and out of the region (Al-Mazrouei 2015).

The nations using the Strait of Hormuz for the transportation of fossil fuel are significant drivers of the global consumption of these resources. According to a report by the Energy Institute, the Middle East produces approximately 33% of the world’s oil, with Iran producing approximately 12.5% while the UAE produces 13%. As for the production of gas, the same regions account for approximately 18% of the world’s production. The same two nations contribute 35% and 8% respectively to the Middle East production (Energy Institute, 2023). These figures underline the major importance of the Strait of Hurmuz to the global fossil fuel industry. This also justifies the importance that Iran and the UAE attach to these three small islands, Abu Musa and the Tunbs. Thus, whoever manages to control these isles will be able to exert tremendous control over a sizable part of the international fossil fuel trade. 

A brief history of the dispute 

The first incident in the saga of this dispute occurred in 1904 when Iran, guided by its economic interests, in particular the abundance of resources such as red oxide, decided to challenge the sovereignty of the Emir of Sharjah over the island of Abu Musa. They did this by planting an Iranian flag on the island’s soil to claim control over it. Under immediate pressure from the British Empire, a major power in the region at the time, to demonstrate the legitimacy of their claim on the island, Iran decided to withdraw from this initial conflict. The second episode followed in year 1970 when, after failing to annex Bahrain, Iran again turned its sights upon the three islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, renewing its claims over these territories (Al-Roken, 2001).

This proved to be the right moment for this endeavour of securing Iran’s ambitions in the region due to Britain announcing its withdrawal from the Persian Gulf at the end of November 1971. As a response to this development, the British tried to work out a compromise, which ultimately proved to be in Iran’s favour. The Tunbs were militarily occupied by Iran on November 30, 1971. Regarding the Abu Musa Island, Iran and Sharjah reached a compromise that allowed a joint administration of the island as well as sharing the revenues it yielded through the oil trade (Mobley 2003).

Britain’s withdrawal also marked the opportune moment for Iran to make the play to become a major power in the Persian Gulf region. This was possible owing to the power vacuum created by Britain’s withdrawal, a void only Iran was able to fill. There were other reasons for Iran’s ambition to expand its influence in the region of the Persian Gulf, such as the deterioration of relations between Iran and the surrounding Arab states or the growth in importance of the oil and gas industry. In light of these developments, Iran saw itself surrounded by hostile Arab regimes, a hostility fuelled, for instance, by the 1958 coup d’etat in Iraq and Iran’s recognition of Israel as a state in 1960, which also drew the ire of Egypt. As a result, Iran saw the Gulf theatre as a means of safeguarding its national security and protecting its oil exports. Additionally, the Strait of Hormuz has played a pivotal role given its status as a major hub for maritime fossil fuel commerce in the region and the world. The consequence thereof was that securing this region would also lead to securing a stable economy (Ahmadi, 2008).

As a result of its expansionist policies, Iran was habitually in conflict with its neighbours striving for supremacy in the Persian Gulf, especially concerning the three islands and the abundant natural resources present in the area, hence the dispute discussed here. There have also been attempts at a resolution through arbitration at the International Court of Justice, a solution proposed in 1996 by the Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the UAE. As a result of Iran’s refusal to cooperate, the Gulf Cooperation Council declared Iran’s claims to be unsubstantiated and announced its unconditional support for the UAE’s claims to these three strategically relevant islands (Cordesman, 2007). 

The state of affairs between the feuding states 

Iran is currently trying to consolidate its control over the three disputed islands which are also claimed by the UAE. One of the methods used to this end is colonizing them with citizens of Iranian origin to whom the state will provide certain amenities such as plots of land or financial help for construction of housing on the islands. In the case of the Abu Musa Island, which is the largest of the three, it is estimated that this program will lead to an impressive population of approximately 1.7 million people on the island (Motamedi, 2023). Furthermore, to encourage population growth as much as possible, the state decided to remove restrictions preventing people from building new homes on the islands if they have previously owned real estate in the past five years (NewArab, 2023). This strategy will strengthen Iran’s control over the islands due to the large number of Iranian citizens who will occupy the lands. This therefore strengthens the legitimacy of Iran’s claims over the islands, while undermining those of the UAE.

The tensions surrounding the power struggle over control of the three islands have even caused issues with Russia, which is one of Iran’s most important allies. Following a press release issued during the sixth Russo-Arab Cooperation Forum endorsing the UAE’s position on this bilateral dispute, Russia’s chargé d’affaires was summoned to provide explanations for those statements to the Tehran administration, as any action perceived as an attack on Iran’s indisputable sovereignty over the three islands is a cause for concern. (Associated Press, 2023).

Within the statement that offended Iran, the Cooperation Forum outlined several positions on the current context in the Middle East. For instance, Israel was condemned for its ongoing occupation of Palestine and other territories, and there was encouragement for finding a way to bring peace and stability to the region. Regarding the dispute between Iran and the UAE, the Forum expressed its “... support for all peaceful efforts, including initiatives and efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the issue of the three islands Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa...” (Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum, 2023). 

Power plays and diplomatic entanglements 

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important transit points for the international fossil fuel commerce. Any disruption of the trade flows in this region can have significant repercussions on the supply and prices of these goods. Exporters from this region are mostly members of OPEC and have been shipping approximately 17 million barrels of oil per day through this strait, with a large portion of this quantity reaching importers in Asia. By controlling the three strategically important islands, Iran has the power to hinder or even block trade through this crucial artery should it feel its sovereignty is under attack. This is possible because large commercial vessels are required to navigate through the channel formed between the Tunb and Abu Musa islands, thereby giving Iran leverage over naval traffic. As a result, Iran could launch attacks on tankers in the area or restrict the movement of certain vessels (Katzman et al, 2012).

Among the most affected international actors in the event of such disruptions are China and India, two of Iran’s most important trading partners. China and Iran share a unique relationship, forming a symbiotic alliance. China views Iran as a crucial supplier of fossil fuels, while Iran sees China as a balancing force against the Western powers. In the case of India, the situation is similarly delicate, with Iran supplying as much as 42% of its fossil fuels. As such, both states have a vested interest in keeping the Strait open; otherwise, their economies would suffer significantly from the need to find alternatives to this crucial route. (Sayin and Kilic, 2020). 


The Island of Abu Musa is the largest of the three islands that Iran and UAE are contesting, and along with the other two islands holds a very strategically important position in the Persian Gulf due to the maritime traffic passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The dispute started to take shape over a century ago and it still affects the bilateral relations between the two states. The rationales for possessing these territories are both economic and military. From an economic point of view, the islands confer the owner an increased influence of the trade the passes through the Straits, and from a military point of view, military bases on these islands can exert significant control over the maritime commerce in the region.

The Strait of Hormuz is also the most crucial route for the global fossil fuel trade, with nearly 40% of this trade passing through this point. Additionally, the states bordering the Persian Gulf are important producers of fossil fuels, which further emphasizes the importance of the Strait to their own economies. Abu Musa possesses particularly abundant resources of both oil and gas, which further consolidates its geostrategic relevance.

To protect this territory and to strengthen its claims over the island, Iran started a project to increase the Iranian populace of the Abu Musa Island by offering various amenities for settling the land. A substantial population of Iranians on the island will contribute to further legitimizing its claims of the territory. In contrast, the UAE has chosen the diplomatic route to settle this dispute, offering Iran several opportunities to settle their differences with the help of the International Court of Justice. However, I believe the chances that this particular issue will be solved are quite slim. The two countries’ interests are too divergent to be solved by diplomacy, given that Iran rejects any statement that questions its sovereignty over the islands, a factor that decisively hinders the diplomatic process. 

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Ahmadi, (2008), Islands and International Politics in the Persian Gulf: Abu Musa and the Tunbs.

Al-Mazrouei, (2015), Disputed Islands between UAE and Iran: Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb in the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf Research Centre Cambridge.

Al-Roken, (2001), Dimensions of the UAE-Iran Dispute over Three Islands in: United Arab Emirates: A new perspective, Trident Press Ltd, pp. 179-185.

Associated Press, (2023), Iran Summons Russian envoy over statement on Persian Gulf disputed islands, available at:

Cordesman, (2007), Iran, Oil, and the Strait of Hormuz, Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Energy Institute, (2023), Statistical Review of World Energy, available at:

Katzman et al, (2012), Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz, Congressional Research Service, available at:

Mobley, (2003), The Tunbs and Abu Musa Islands: Britain’s Perspective, Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4, Middle East Institute.

Motamedi, (2023), How will Iran populate the Strait of Hormuz islands the UAE also claims?, Aljazeera, available at:

New Arab, (2023), Iran offers free land for construction on disputed Gulf island, New Arab, available at:

Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum, (2023), Joint Declaration of The Sixth Session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum at the Ministerial Level, available at:

Sayin and Kilic, (2020), The Strait of Hormuz and Iran’s International Relations, Eurasian Research Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1.




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