The islands conflict: synthesis and findings

Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 has rightfully been described as “a pivot of modern Middle Eastern history” (Gause 2010, 43). It changed regional dynamics profoundly. Iran became uniquely isolated in the region and started to develop hostile relationships with most of its neighbors. In addition, the Iranian regime was vehemently opposed by the West that had tacitly supported (or at least not opposed) Iranian policy toward the contested islands in the 1970s. Tehran's new friends were the shah’s old enemies, “radical” Arab states like Syria and Libya. When this radical axis weakened, the conservative-moderate bloc of the monarchies and their allies used the opportunity to bring the territorial dispute back on the agenda.

However, power shifts alone camiot explain the rapid deterioration of interstate relations. The change in regional alliance patterns was a clear consequence of the revolution, which abolished the monarchy and installed an extremely dissimilar system, legitimized by an ideology vehemently opposed to monarchism.

In comparison, the contrast is obvious: in 1971, the occupation of the Tunb islands was met with only weak reactions. Two decades later, the mere assertion of broader Iranian sovereignty on an already-shared island was met with a much more vigorous response. What had changed? From an Emirati point of view, it was finally possible to stand up to Iran, knowing that Western and Arab allies would be by the UAE's side, unlike in 1971. However, a major change was that it had also almost become desirable. Iran had long ceased to be an ally and had transformed into a major threat. Iran's clerics called for the overthrow of monarchism, and its presidents were dismissive of the smaller neighbors’ issues. Once Iran turned into a theocratic republic, it turned its back on the "monarchic club” that now symbolized everything the Islamic Revolution claimed to struggle against. As long as Iran had been a monarchy, the sense of similarity and shared monarchic fate had succeeded in overcoming the regional security dilemma. Thus, there was good reason to restrict and oppose the shah - but not to undermine him. But republican Iran was different: it remained Persian and Shia and remained a large rentier state, but now it became republican and theocratic. As all remaining links were severed, undermining the new Islamic revolutionary regime in Tehran promised benefits for regime security and interstate violence returned as a legitimate mode of foreign policy, resulting in numerous militarized confrontations.

Although the closeness of the larger Arab-Persian monarchic ingroup was not as pronounced as between Arab monarchies in general between the GCC member states in particular, in retrospect, it seems remarkable that for almost a decade, monarchic ingroup identity trumped both geopolitics on one hand and ethnic and sectarian tensions on another, which are known to generally supersede competing identities (cf. Saideman 2002). With no political system similarity to foster connection, ethnicity trumped historical alliances, so the quest for regional hegemony could now be pursued unencumbered.

Iranian revisionism did not derive from a change in the balance of power; rather, the country had always been the region's dominant power. In 1971, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded that Iran's air force and navy could match the forces of all the Persian Gulf Arab littoral states combined (Ahmadi 2008, 78). Although a powerful Iranian monarchy was relatively friendly toward its fellow monarchies, a powerful Iranian Islamic Republic was not.

After the change of the regime in Iran, the interstate norm of peaceful conflict settlement had been greatly weakened, evidenced by MID data. The change of

Table 5.2 Deterioration of Iranian-UAE Relations


Period I

Period II

1.1 Shared language.

cc • -

culture, history, and

2 rc


5 3




1.2 Similar political system


but highly dissimilar


1.3 Similar economic


— /+


Rentier states, but

reorientation of new Iranian reghne

2.1 Low/decreasing share

— /+



Minority, increase in





2.2 Common threat


Iraq, radical

Iraq, but not



2.3 Absence of divisive

— /+


Persian and Arab

nationalisms, but no full-fledged ideologies

3.1 Mutual recognition


official relations only

since 1982

3.2 Personalization of bonds


between ruling elites

3.2.1 Frequent high-

— /+


level state visits

Few, some first

beginning in late


1980s, frequency of state visits

rose in times of

rapprochement around Gulf War, but also frequent cancelations and


3.2.2 Kinship,

intermarriage and

Little between Iran

Frequent change of

friendship bonds

and UAE, but some

official staff in Iran

between Iran and

precluded longer-

larger linchpin monarchies (Jordan, Egypt, Oman)

lasting bonds


Period I

Period II

3.2.3 Shared socialization

Shah Swiss educational background, Arab Gulf British

Separate socialization after cut with West

Ö o





Affirmation of commonality

3.3.1 Kinship and family references


Often “neighbor”, rarely “friend"

Oh § ob Ö

o co



o uo


  • 3.3.2 Emphasis on similarity
  • 3.3.3 References to shared historical narratives


although ethnic difference remained pronounced


Shared conservative outlook

Persian and Shia fault line stronger than before, though initially some attempts at uniting via pan-Islamism

Common ceremonies only in broad international for a (OIC, UN, etc.)

”6 o<

ö a

WJ •-«

■—< CC


O 00

£ 2


3.3.4 Common ceremonies/shared institutions

Military restraint


Persepolis, OIC


However, the seizure of the islands dates before independence and was largely settled by negotiation

Less-common ceremonies (mostly restricted to Arab League protocol)

5 MLDs between 1984 and 1992


Non-military restraint



  • 4.2.1 Refrainingfiom delegitimization
  • 4.2.2 Refrainingfiom subversion



Delegitimization of regime, discrediting Islamic credentials

Frequent subversion attempts

(Con tin tied)

Table 5.2 (Continued)


Period I

Period II

4.2.3 Rhetorical restraint


Rhetorical escalation, threat of violence

4.3 Alliance and solidarity


No formal alliance, but strong de facto aligmnent, solidarity (e.g. support of Kuwait); institutionalization failed

Ad hoc cooperation, no alliance

(But monarchic solidarity with UAE)

the political system lowered the similarity to the Gulf monarchies but made Iran more similar to “radical” Arab republics. Given the unique nature of the Islamic Republic, this shift did not result in a clear-cut ingroup of revolutionary republics. Nonetheless, Iran was able to establish new alliance patterns of coordination and cooperation in the region. Clearly, this reorganization of Iran's regional alliances can be traced back to the overall regime change.

Of course, other important factors should not be ignored. There can be no doubt that the nature of the political system, traditional decision-making process, and smallness of the UAE shaped its foreign policy independently of any possible identification as a member of a larger monarchic community. In the same way, the personality of the long-time ruler for most of the analyzed period. Shaikh Zayed Al Nahyan, heavily influenced UAE foreign policy behavior (Al-Nahyan 2013, 72-73) toward a policy of systematic war avoidance. Although these and similar caveats (power asymmetry, oil wealth, transnational identities, etc.) explain specific elements of the UAE's foreign policy, they fail to capture the radical change of Iranian-UAE relations that occurred after the downfall of the shah.

The conditions for the development of a shared identity were problematic. The states coexisted as monarchies only for a limited time period (1971-1979). Apart from the political system, they shared little else. Thus, the ingroup was still weak: although interstate relations were highly cooperative and peaceful, Iran did act aggressively by seizing the Greater and Lesser Tunb, although it officially preferred a diplomatic solution like the one reached for Abu Musa. The seizure took place at a time when the UAE could not be seen as an independent actor or as a “real” monarchy, but the conflict over the contested islands still shows that monarchic ingroup identification is not automatic and can be overshadowed by other factors. Despite all complications regarding the development of a monarchic ingroup identity, a monarchic peace prevailed while no such stable peace was found in the mixed-dyad period.

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