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Iran and the UAE: from dynastic friendship to “seas of blood” - the Tunb islands dispute

After the increasing destabilization of the Middle East in the 2010s, the polarization between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective allies has reached unprecedented heights. The two Gulf states are portrayed as regional rivals engaged in a cold war with "proxy wars” across the Middle East: in Iraq, Bahrain, and especially in Syria and Yemen. The UAE and especially Abu Dhabi share much of their larger neighbor's hostile relationship with Iran, as their involvement in major Saudi-backed initiatives like the Yemen War and the stabilization of the Bahraini regime show. But mere two generations away, Emirati-Iranian relations were marked by cooperation and closeness - before the revolution that replaced the Iranian kingdom with a republic in 1979.

The most defining feature of Iranian-Emirati relations was the dispute about three islands claimed by both countries, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb, once described as the "most intractable Gulf territorial issue” (Calvert and Alcock 2004, 466). The islands issue therefore formed a major stumbling block between the two countries even while they shared a monarchical system - but reerupted with a vigor after the revolution. This case study therefore centers on the islands disputes, which have "served as indicators of Iranian policy and motivation for much of the twentieth century” (Caldwell 1996, 57).

Both Abu Musa and the Tunbs are located at strategic choking points but are of little intrinsic value. Iran has larger military bases on the islands of Qeshem, Hengam, and Larak, which are all closer to the Strait of Hormuz (Kostiner 2009, 199). British sources estimated a population of 150 Arab inhabitants for the Greater Tunb in 1970. Lesser Tunb is waterless and uninhabited. Abu Musa is the largest of the three with about 8 square kilometers and was estimated to house a seasonally varying population of about 800 people (both Arab and Iranian) just before British withdrawal (Mobley 2003, 628).

In contrast to Kuwaiti-Iraqi relations, the republican period did not witness a military conflict between the two countries, but relations were significantly more distrustful, confrontational, and distant than before - with much more escalation potential in times of conflict. Despite the antagonistic action of Iran, the seizure of the islands on the eve of UAE independence in 1971, the shah was mostly accepted as the protector and "police officer of the Gulf’, while the theocratic clerics and presidents after 1979 were viewed as threatening, even during periods when Iraq was a more direct military threat to the Gulf monarchies.

While the dispute was a constant factor in relations, the handling of the conflict during periods of shared and distinct political systems was decisively distinct. The bilateral relationship between Iran and the UAE and their legal predecessor (the Trucial states) was ridden with conflict.

Two points make this case a particularly “strong test” for the SPSP theory, in that it is a "least-likely case”, i.e. the conditions for the theory to work are far from ideal. If it still has explanatory power under these conditions, it is even likelier to hold true in more-applicable ones. This makes it a suitable case to explore the limits of monarchic ingroup identification as a conflict diffuser. What makes the context problematic for an SPSP? First, the countries, even in jointly monarchic periods, are highly dissimilar. Second, the available time for an ingroup identification to occur is especially short - the period between the UAE's independence and the Iranian revolution spans only eight years (1971-1979), meaning that an ingroup would just be in its developing stages, similarly to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti case. In contrast to it, there was no war in the second period, meaning that the implications from this case are more limited.

The case begins with a contextualization of the conflict in the pre-independence period under British influence. This period culminated in an Iranian occupation of the three disputed islands, one with the permission and participation of the contestant Emirati ruler of Sharjah (Abu Musa) and two against the explicit resistance of the shaikh of Ras al-Kliaimah (the Tunbs). Preceding UAE statehood and independence by just two days, it constitutes clear military action, though of limited scope (seven police officers and soldiers died, in total).13

The first period under analysis traces the monarchic (and jointly independent) period 1971-1979, when a common identity develops slowly and the most intense cooperation is seen - though the dispute remains unresolved. The second period traces the deterioration of relations after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 until the rapprochement in the late 1990s that heralds a period of renewed tension and hostilities, with immediate revisionism toward the islands issue leading to a new height of confrontations in 1992. The dispute has not been settled to this day.

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