Abu Musa Island

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Small island near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, claimed by both Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Musa is an island in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf located at 55° E longitude and between 25° 51 N and 25° 54 N latitude. It is 31 miles (49 kilometers) east of Iran's island of Sirri, about 42 miles (68 kilometers) south of the Iranian mainland port of Bandar-e Lengeh, and 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Musa's total area is approximately 4 square miles (10 square kilometers). There are several fresh-water wells on the island, and these support a covering of dry grass.

Although Iran historically claimed ownership of all the islands in the Gulf, since the late nineteenth century the sovereignty of Abu Musa has been in dispute. The ruler of Sharjah, then a dependency of Britain, claimed jurisdiction over the island after tribesmen owing allegiance to him had begun to transport their domesticated animals by boat to Abu Musa for seasonal grazing there. Initially, Britain did not support the claim of its protectorate, but in 1903 British forces evicted Iranian customs officials on the island and claimed Abu Musa on behalf of Sharjah. At the time, Iran's military was virtually nonexistent and powerless to challenge Britain. Nevertheless, Iran lodged an official protest with the British government and in subsequent years periodically raised the issue.

After Britain in 1968 announced that Sharjah and its other dependencies in the Persian Gulf would become independent, Iran, which by then had reemerged as a regional power, insisted that its claims to Abu Musa be addressed. In 1971, on the eve of Sharjah's independence and admission to the new United Arab Emirates federation, the leaders of Sharjah and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding. This agreement left the question of ultimate sovereignty open but provided for Iranian jurisdiction in the northern half of the island and Sharjah's jurisdiction in the southern part. In addition, both parties agreed to divide the income from petroleum production in waters surrounding Abu Musa.

The agreement on shared sovereignty worked reasonably well for twenty years. In early 1992, however, the United Arab Emirates, with backing from the United States, accused Iran of violating the accord and interfering in Sharjah's administration of the southern half of Abu Musa. Although Iran and the United Arab Emirates subsequently worked out an informal arrangement to continue observing the terms of the 1971 Memorandum of Understanding pending a resolution of their dispute, the issue is one that continues to affect overall bilateral relations negatively. The position of the United Arab Emirates since 1992 has been that Iran should agree to permit the International Court to arbitrate their contending claims to sovereignty over Abu Musa; Iran rejects this position.

see also sharjah.


Amirahmadi, Hooshang, ed. Small Islands, Big Politics: The Tonbs and Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Bavand, Davoud H. The Historical, Political and Legal Bases of Iran's Sovereignty over the Islands of Tunb and Abu Musa. New York: Internet Concepts, 1994.

Schofield, Richard. Unfinished Business: Iran, UAE, Abu Musa and the Tunbs. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2001.

Eric Hooglund