Arab-Iranian Rivalry in the Persian Gulf: Territorial Disputes and the Balance of Power in the Middle East

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By: Farzad Cyrus Sharifi-Yazdi

Publisher: I.B. Tauris

New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2015. 402p. $110.00. ISBN: 978-1848858220.

Volume: 3 Issue: 12

December 2015

Review by:

Christopher Anzalone, ABD

McGill University

Montréal, QC, CA

The political competition between Iran and the Arab states, particularly Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the al-Khalifa ruling dynasty of Bahrain, continues to play a major role in regional and wider geopolitics, and specifically in countries such as Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Although today, this competition is often seen as being the result of the conflicting political ambitions of Iran’s Shi’a Islamist government and Saudi Arabia’s officially Salafi/”Wahhabi” Sunni monarchy and official religious establishment, its roots go deeper, and in the modern period, date back to the nineteenth century, well before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its Islamization by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his supporters.

In the book under review, Farzad Cyrus Sharifi-Yazdi examines what the disputes between Iran under Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country’s last monarch, and the aforementioned Arab states over the control of Bahrain, the Tunbs islands, the island of Abu Musa, and the Shatt al-Arab waterway between 1957 and 1969. He focuses on this period because he argues that it was during it that the contours of later continued conflicts over the islands and the Shatt al-Arab were set, even after the shah dropped claims to Bahrain in 1969. The renewed struggle over these territories began in 1957, when Iran resurrected a longstanding historical claim to Bahrain in the beginning of the twilight of British imperial power in the Persian Gulf region. This is a period that has been much less studied than territorial conflicts between Iran and its Arab neighbors from 1970 onward. The book, which makes extensive use of primary documents and interviews, provides a wealth of historical detail and theoretical argument about the reasons and nature of territorial disputes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well as the history of Iranian-Arab political competition and rivalries in the modern period.

Sharifi-Yazdi is based on in-depth research and the use of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United States Department of State, and Iranian Foreign Ministry documents and collections of diplomatic files and cables, augmenting his primary document analysis with interviews of key figures in the disputes. Due to the more open nature of British and American governmental documents and archives, he was able to look at many more of their documents than Iranian, for which he was limited to a fewer number of documents made public by the Iranian government and housed at the Institute of Political and International Studies, the research arm of the country’s foreign ministry. Among those interviewed were former Iranian government officials and Arab scholars familiar with the foreign policies and diplomatic files of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE emirate of Ras al-Khaima not available for public viewing, particularly to an Iranian researcher.

The reasons for territorial disputes, Sharifi-Yazdi argues in Chapter 2, often extends far beyond the specific historic, geographic, and functional details of the territory in dispute. Indeed, territorial disputes often have important emotive and symbolic dimensions that often play a major role in driving them. Among these is the concern and desire of rulers and governments for “prestige” and power, or the appearance of power, vis-à-vis regional rivals. This was an important factor in Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s foreign policy, for example, as well as that of Iraq during its multiple disputes with Iran over the Shatt al-Arab. The interest in achieving political prestige is not only an emotive desire, but also has important political aspects — namely the enhancement of national and personal power and influence — which in turn is meant to decrease domestic and external challenges to the ruling government by serving as a means of domestic diversion and regime legitimization. The territorial disputes between Iran and certain Arab states are also influenced, Sharifi-Yazdi argues, by historical and contemporary political contestations and rivalries over regional influence. As British imperial power and influence declined in the MENA generally and the Persian Gulf region specifically, Pahlavi Iran sought to fill the vacuum by increasing its own regional political power and influence, which in turn was met by resistance to “foreign Iranian meddling and expansion” by Arab states, particularly those, such as Saudi Arabia, that see themselves as regional hegemons.

In Chapters 3-6, Sharifi-Yazdi provides historical overviews of the Iranian-Arab disputes over Bahrain, the Greater and Lesser islands of Tunbs, the island of Abu Musa, and the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. Highlighting the role of prestige and regional rivalry in driving territorial disputes, the conflicts over the Tunbs islands and Abu Musa have far exceeded their territorial size or value. For much of the nineteenth century, from 1820 to the 1890s, the Persian Gulf was dominated by Britain, but in 1906 the Qajar ruling dynasty in Iran re-raised historical claims, dating back to the Safavid period, of its rights over Bahrain, claims that the British dismissed. In November 1957, the Iranian parliament passed a motion declaring Bahrain to be the country’s fourteenth province, a symbolic political move that significantly soured Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors. Despite the eventual de facto settlement of the dispute over Bahrain, Iran and its Arab neighbors have continued to use the disputes over the Tunbs and Abu Musa as diplomatic tools to retaliate against rival territorial claims.

The Shatt al-Arab dispute dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century political rivalry between the Ottoman and Safavid empires, both of which sought to control the strategic waterway in southern Iraq as part of their wider conflict over control of Iraq and other borderlands between their two imperial realms. During the first half of the twentieth century, as in the disputes over Bahrain, the Tunbs, and Abu Musa, the discovery of vast oil fields in the region exacerbated the already-existing territorial conflicts. The conflict increased after 1958, when British influence in Iraq dramatically declined following the country’s revolution and overthrow of the British-installed Hashemite monarchy and its replacement by a series of nationalist and eventually Ba’athist regimes. The waterway became a major area of live conflict during the Iran-Iraq War and even after, Iran and Iraq have continued their dispute over it. Following the overthrow of the Iraqi Ba’ath government in 2003, Iran has maintained its advantage in the dispute as a means of increasing its regional power projection.

Iran under both the shah and Khomeini and his successors has used these territorial disputes as a means of countering domestic challenges, enhancing regime stability and legitimization, and increasing its projection of power and influence, which Sharifi-Yazdi discusses in Chapter 7. It has used its increasing military dominance in the Persian Gulf region as a way to broadcast its status as a regional hegemon, to the chagrin and fear of its Arab rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states.

The book concludes with a series of appendices of important documents related to the territorial disputes over Bahrain, the Tunbs, Abu Musa, and the Shatt al-Arab. These include a table of military spending between 1968-1972 by Iran and its Arab rivals and reproductions of the text of key treaties and agreements.

Sharifi-Yazdi’s book is an important addition and expansion of the existing literature on modern Iranian history, the history of Iranian-Arab diplomatic relations, modern Middle Eastern politics, and the theoretical studies of territorial conflict. It is written in clear prose and is both empirically rich and theoretically clear and persuasive. The inclusion of maps enables the reader to locate and follow the territories in dispute without having to set the book aside to consult external sources. The book could easily be incorporated into graduate or advanced undergraduate courses on Middle Eastern politics and territorial conflicts.

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