Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, greets Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Tehran in August. A United Arab Emirates government source said the sultan was involved in negotiations to return at least two of three islands in the Strait of Hormuz to the UAE. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
John Bretschneider / Staff
ABU DHABI — The United Arab Emirates and Iran have reached an agreement on the three disputed islands near the Strait of Hormuz, according to a high level UAE source.
According to the source, UAE and Iranian officials have engaged in secretive talks with the help of the Omani government over the past six months.
“A deal has been reached and finalized on the Greater and Lesser Tunbs,” the source said. “For now, two of the three islands are to return to the UAE while the final agreement for Abu Musa is being ironed out.”
“Iran will retain the sea bed rights around the three islands while the UAE will hold sovereignty over the land,” he said. “Oman will grant Iran a strategic location on Ras Musandam mountain, which is a very strategic point overlooking the whole gulf region.
“In return for Ras Musandam, Oman will receive free gas and oil from Iran once a pipeline is constructed within the coming two years.”
The source added that Oman’s role will be important in the next chapter.
“Oman was given the green light from Iran and the US to reach deals that would decrease the threat levels in the region and offset the Saudi Arabian influence in the future by any means,” he said.
The agreement was finalized on Dec. 24, the source said, during the visit of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman.
The strategically located islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs are close to the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint. The islands were occupied by Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pehlavi less than 48 hours before the declaration in 1971 of the establishment of the United Arab Emirates.
The largest of the three Islands, Abu Musa, had been under joint administration of the emirate of Sharjah and Iran, while the Greater and Lesser Tunbs belonged to the emirate of Ras al Khaimah, according to official UAE records.
Last year, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command inaugurated a naval base on Abu Musa. The source stated that the Iranian military on Abu Musa has already started to stand down.
“They are in the process of destroying their bunkers on the island,” he said.
Furthermore, a senior US military official in December said that Iran has redeployed a squadron of Su-25 jet fighters off Abu Musa.
After the announcement of the P5+1 interim nuclear deal, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed visited Tehran to discuss the islands issue, the source said. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif came to Abu Dhabi the following week to meet with UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other senior leaders to further cement an agreement, he said.
The source added that there is a fear of a violent backlash in Iran to the deal.
Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he is skeptical of the news.
“[Iranian] President [Hassan] Rouhani is in a fragile domestic situation as a result of hardline criticism of his conciliatory nuclear approach and outreach to the United States,” he said. “Under these circumstances, any move perceived as undermining the country’s sovereignty could turn into the last straw that breaks the Rouhani administration’s back.”
However, he said the Iranian government is genuinely seeking to improve its ties with its neighbors, and such a move has to be green-lighted by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Such foreign policy agenda requires the supreme leader’s blessing for its implementation,” Vaez said. “But neither the Rouhani administration nor Khamenei would accept to capitulate to the demands of their neighbors for the sake of having a better relationship with them.”
During Foreign Minister Zarif’s visit in December, an invitation was extended to UAE’s president Vice President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid to visit Tehran. Earlier this week during an interview on BBC, Bin Rashid stated that he is for the lifting of the US-imposed sanctions on Iran and was in favor of bridging the gap between the two countries.
Before sanctions were imposed in 2007, trade between the UAE and Iran was valued between 36.7 billion dirhams and 44.1 billion dirhams (US $10 billion to $12 billion), according to the Iranian Business Council in Dubai. US Secretary of State John Kerry in November said that after the introduction of tougher sanctions in 2012, trade has dropped to a record low of $4 billion. ■