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ICE Case Studies
Number 103, January 1997

Abu Musa Island, Sovereignty Claims and Environmental Resources (Link to TED case 369), by W. Corbett Dabbs

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

Abu Musa, an island in the Persian Gulf, is claimed by both Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The island is valued by these two countries for economic, security, and environmental reasons. One significant feature about this island is that it is potentially full of oil reserves. Currently, oil is being extracted from a field close to the shores of Abu Musa. The dispute over the island is unresolved and could ignite an international crisis at some point in the future. In addition to the conflict, there are also environmental concerns that are associated with Abu Musa. If there were to be an oil spill on or around this island it could have grave consequences on the environment and the nearby animal life.

2. Description

This case study will first explore the background of Abu Musa. The history of the dispute will help to determine its 
relevance toward trade, environmental, and security issues. The following description will give a general background 
of the dispute over the island, and then the case study will further examine these issues.

Abu Musa, which is only a few miles square, lies in the Persian Gulf about halfway between Iran and the UAE. For most 
of this century, it did not have more than a few dozen permanent residents. However, both Iran and the UAE desire control 
of the island. Abu Musa is full of oil reserves, which fuel the economies of both Iran and the UAE. In addition, 
the island is located in the Strait of Hormuz, the mouth of the Persian Gulf.   This 
strategic position could allow a country to influence the Gulf's valuable shipping lane, 
or even to close off the Gulf all together.

In January 1968, Britain announced that it would withdraw all of its forces from east of Suez by the end of 1971. At that 
time the sheikdom of Sharjah (later part of the UAE) controlled Abu Musa. However, the Shah of Iran was very interested in 
the island. The Shah claimed that Abu Musa had been taken from Iran at a time when there had been no central government and 
that his father had tried unsuccessfully to recover the island, but the British had assured him that the ownership of the 
islands would be settled. Furthermore, the Shah is reported to have stated, "[Abu Musa is] of strategic importance to us as 
much as to the Persian Gulf states and to the peace and security of our region."(1) The Shah dropped Iran's claim on Bahrain 
in January 1969, in an effort to show accommodation and stave off strong condemnations of his military takeover of Abu Musa.(2)

By the end of November 1971, the conflict over the island reached a pitch. On November 29, Iran and Sharjah announced an agreement 
calling for Sharjah to maintain sovereignty over Abu Musa and Iran to station military forces on the island. Oil revenues from the oil 
fields surrounding the island would be shared.(3) On November 30, Iran sent military forces to Abu Musa, in accordance with its agreement
 with Sharjah, but then took control of the two nearby Tunb islands. Iran's seizure of these three islands caused a reaction in the 
 Arab world. Iraq built up it port and naval facilities at Umm Qasr, and the UAE was formed as a federation of five trucial sheikdoms. 
 However, the Arab states did not take any military action, and the US did not insist on an immediate withdrawal. American 
 non-interference can be attributed to Iran's strategic importance to the US at that time.(4)

The dispute became a relatively dormant issue following the establishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and the UAE in 
October 1972.(5) In 1980, however, the UAE submitted its claim on the island to the United Nations and joined with five other 
nations Gulf states to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Throughout the rest of the 1980s, the dispute over the island 
was overshadowed by the Iran-Iraq war, until March 1992, when Iran expelled the foreigners from Abu Musa. The foreigners ran 
the UAE-sponsored school, medical clinic, and power-generating station. Then in April, Iran took full control of the island.(6) 
After the UAE brought the issue up to the GCC in September of 1992, Iran declared full sovereignty over the three islands. 
However, the dispute was temporarily resolved again when Iran and Sharjah agreed to abide by the 1971 agreement. The reason 
behind Iran's takeover in 1992 are still unclear; Youssef Ibrahim, of the New York Times, reports that "There have long been 
suspicions that the agreement between Iran and the Emirates included a secret annex that gave Iran control of the island 
in 1992."(7)

When Iraq made threatening moves toward Kuwait in October 1994, Iran increased its military presence on Abu Musa. Although, 
when the crisis subsided, Iranian troops remained on the island. Then in 1995, Iran increased its troops to 4,000 from 700 in 
just five months and deployed SA-6 surface-to-air missiles, 155- millimeter artillery, and "Seersucker" anti-ship missiles. In 
addition, Secretary of Defense Perry noted that Iran had deployed chemical weapons in the Gulf.(8) Iran opened an airport on 

Abu Musa in March 1996 and there are reports that it also plans to build a port.(9)  The UAE has been careful to maintain some contact 
with Iran because of the large number of Iranian expatriates in the UAE and because of Iran's proximity. The UAE has urged Iran to agree 

Iran has....This can only be a potential threat to shipping."(18) Iran has reportedly also intensified naval exercises over 
the past two to three years that included several scenarios focusing on closing the Strait, sabotaging ports and storming oil platforms and 
coastal targets.(19)  Iran's recent actions may not demonstrate a desire to take control of the Strait. Harold Hough, of Jane's Intelligence 
Review, states that "the military build-up [is] part of a greater move by Iran to spread its influence in the Persian Gulf rather than an 
attempt to solidify its hold on the Strait."(20) Abu Musa gives Iran a base for projecting its power and influence south toward the GCC. 
Control of Abu Musa also gives extra protection to Bandar Abbas, an Iranian port important for its oil industry and military base. According 
to Hough, "If Iran wanted to deny the waterway to the US Navy, missile sites near Bandar Abbas would be more valuable since they are on 
the Iranian mainland and the US would be less willing to attack them for both political and military reasons."(21)


With oil production, the chance of environmental damage is always present, especially if the region which contains the oil resources is 
in dispute. At this point there is no oil production on the island of Abu Musa, although the parties are hoping that this will change 
in the future. Damage to the surrounding environment and animal species could be associated with oil production or an oil spill. 
Furthermore, any future conflict over the island could inadvertently damage the oil production or resources, which would have additional 
devastating effects on the environment. The specific damage to the environment will be discussed in latter portions of this case study.

The dispute over Abu Musa is important to many countries for several reasons. The potential oil resources on the island and in the 
surrounding area are valuable to the economies of both the UAE and Iran. Furthermore, the island's location could strategically be 
used to disrupt the world's access to oil. Currently, Iranian intentions over control of the island are unclear. This uncertainty makes 
the dispute unstable and it could give rise to conflict in the future.

3. Duration

1968 to today

4. Location

Continent: Mideast
Region: Asia-Mideast
Country: Iran

5. Actors

Iran and UAE

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem


7. Type of Habitat

8. Act and Harm Sites:

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict


10. Level of Conflict


11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Causal Diagram

13. Level of Strategic Interest


14. Outcome of Dispute:


V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature


1. Dan Caldwell, "Flashpoints in the Gulf: Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands." Middle East Policy, March 1, 1996, v4 n3, p.52

2. Hooshang Amirahmadi and Nader Entessar, eds. Iran and the Arab World, St. Martin's Press: New York, 1993, p.70

3. Caldwell, p.52

4. Amirahmadi and Entessar, p.127

5. Caryle Murphy, "Iran Claims Sovereignty Over Small, Oil- Producing Gulf Island." The Washington Post, September 25, 1992, p.A31

6. Caldwell, p.53

7. Youssef M. Ibrahim, "Iran Is Said to Expel Arabs From Gulf Island." The New York Times, April 16, 1992, p.A7

8. Caldwell, p.54-55(paragraph)

9. "Iran to Build Port on Abu Musa," Arab Press Service Organisation, APS Diplomat Recorder, May 25, 1996, n21 v44

10. "UAE protests Iran power plant on contested island," Reuter World Service, April 18, 1996

11. Caldwell, p.56

12. Shelly Deane Gould Alexander, "Factors in the Settlement of the Dispute Over Abu Musa and the Tombs," M.A. Thesis, The American University: 1979, p.25

13. "Enterprise In UAE Project," Platt's Oilgram News, v74 n132, July 10, 1996, p.3

14. Alexander, p.12

15. Barry May, "Hormuz choke-point for half world's oil exports," Reuters North American Wire, August 7, 1996

16. Ibid.

17. Harold Hough, "Iranian Intentions-The Strait of Hormuz or Beyond?" Jane's Intelligence Review, October 1, 1995, v7 n10, p.454

18. Caldwell, p.55

19. May

20. Hough, p.454

21. Ibid., p.454


Alexander, Shelley Deane Gould, "Factors in the Settlement of the Dispute Over Abu Musa and the Tombs," M.A. Thesis, The American University, 1979

Amirahmadi, Hooshang, and Entessar, Nader, Eds. Iran and the Arab World, St Martin's Press: New York, 1993

Borrus, Amy, "How Big Oil Defies the Great Satan." Business Week, February 13, 1995, p.6

Caldwell, Dan, "Flashpoints in the Gulf: Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands." Middle East Policy, March 1, 1996, v4 n3, p.50-57

"Effects of Marine Oil Spills," December 11, 1996,

"Enterprise in UAE Project." Platt's Oilgram News, July 10, 1996, v74 n132, p.3

Hough, Harold, "Iranian Intentions-The Strait of Hormuz or Beyond?" Jane's Intelligence Review, October 1, 1995, v7 n10, p.454

Ibrahim, Youssef M., "Iran Is Said to Expel Arabs From Gulf Island." The New York Times, April 16, 1992, p.A7

"Iran, Emirates in Dispute Over Gulf Island." The Washington Post, April 17, 1992, p.A18

"Iran to Build Port on Abu Musa." Arab Press Service Organisation, May 25, 1996, n21 v44

Ismail, Ibrahim A.H., "Capital limitations, environmental movements may interfere with expansion plans." Oil & Gas Journal, May 9, 1994, p.60-68

May, Barry, "Hormuz choke-point for half world's oil exports." Reuters North American Wire, August 7, 1996

Murphy, Caryle, "Iran Claims Sovereignty Over Small, Oil- Producing Gulf Island." The Washington Post, September 25, 1992, p.A31

Murphy, Kim, "Iran Re-Emerges as Troubling Question Mark in the Gulf." The Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1992, p.A5

Rizvi, S.N. Asad, "From Tents to High Rise: Economic Development of the United Arab Emirate." Middle Eastern Studies, October 1993, p.664-678

"Sharjah." APS Review Oil Market Trends, December 4, 1995, n22 v45

"UAE Operations Step Up Oil, Gas Production." Oil & Gas Journal, August 14, 1995, p.18

"UAE protests Iran power plant on contested island." Reuters World Service, April 18, 1996

Weinberger, Caspar W., "Lands of Opportunity." Forbes, June 20, 1994, p.33