Among the passion plays that pass for regional politics in the Persian Gulf none inflames an Iranian’s sensibilities more than when one calls this body of water Arabian Gulf. The arm of the Indian Ocean that separates the Iranian plateau and Arabian Peninsula in Southwest Asia has been known as the Persian Gulf for over two thousand years. See generally, C. Edmund Bosworth, “The Nomenclature of the Persian Gulf,” in Alvin J. Cottrell, ed., The Persian Gulf States (1980). The practice of calling the gulf “Arabian” began by the Bahraini separatists in the 1930s as a rebuff to the Iranian government’s continued claim to the Bahrain Islands on historical grounds. See John Marlowe, “Arab-Persian Rivalry in the Persian Gulf,” in Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, vol. 51, no.1 (1964), p. 30.
Bin Salman stays away from the use of the label “Arabian Gulf” contrary to the demands of his pedigree, and avoids using the term Persian Gulf perhaps as a concession to his publisher in order to garner a wider appeal for the book. The result therefore is the seemingly neutral use of term the Gulf that, in a scholarly work, makes geographical non-sense and it is intellectually dishonest. The absurdity of the exercise is apparent right at the start when Bin Salman opens (p. 1) with “Iran’s long Gulf coast and its trade through the Strait of Hormuz…” The term Gulf as used in this phrase could have referred just as equally to the Gulf of Oman, a body of water that received its name because it led to Oman and not because it belonged to Oman.
Unless there is an attempt to conform geographical identity to one’s own selfish and egocentric vision of history, there is no compelling reason for changing place-names. The name Persian Gulf predated the rise of the Iranian territorial state in pre-Islamic times and came before modern Iranian nationalism in the sixteenth century. The term did not begin as an expression of national ownership of the waterway, itself a legal impossibility in international law then and now; nor can anyone given to serious scholarship accept the validity of hyper-nationalistic statements like the one dubiously attributed to the mid-nineteenth century Iranian chief minister (pp. 2, 84) that all the waters and islands in the gulf were Persian, or the view held by radical Arabs (p. 29) that the gulf is Arab.
In this book, Bin Salman harkens to a less complicated era in Persian Gulf politics when the foreign minister of an Arab country like Kuwait could refer publicly to “the Persian Gulf” (p. 103) and a British scholar did not have to abandon his own precedent in order to please a particular fad, benefactor or audience (p. 171, titles of J.B. Kelly’s works). This is not to say that the term Gulf in the vernacular is an absurdity, which it is not. In their internal conversations, the British civil servants uttered the term as an intimate label for a region that shaped their common narrative and experience. Equally, the Arabs and Iranians, particularly the inhabitants of the coasts and islands, have used the shorthand Khalij to refer to this body of water in their private conversations.
Bin Salman provides an eminently readable analysis of the near-four years that preceded the termination of Britain’s colonial commitments in the Gulf on 1 December 1971 and the emergence of a new order there. An admixture of references to written works, mostly secondary sources, laced with oral cogitation and rumination of the elder statesmen of the day, coaxes the reader into the processes that ultimately culminated in the independence of Bahrain and Qatar, creation of the United Arab Emirates, Iran-Sharjah jurisdictional partition of Abu Musa Island, and establishment of exclusive Iranian possession and jurisdiction over Tonb-e Bozorg and Tonb-e Kucheck Islands.
The waters that Bin Salman plies in this work are well traveled; the ground is well trodden and the field of study abounds in vegetation of every description. There are however a few novelties that Bin Salman brings to the historical account of the events of 1968-71. He highlights the contribution of the United States to the evolution of the Iranian-Saudi relations and the resolution of the Bahrain, Tonbs and Abu Musa issues, all gleaned properly from interviews, diaries and US archival documents available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
The other gripping narrative concerns the evolution of Iranian-Saudi relations itself and this takes up the entire Chapter 3. The chapter expresses in words what the book’s jacket seeks to convey by showing side by side the likenesses of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, two men of regional stature and international respect who, in this reviewer’s opinion, seized the best three years of their rule to fashion an unprecedented cooperation. The embodiment of it all was the 1969 Iran-Saudi Arabia Continental Shelf Agreement, by which Saudi Arabia recognized Iranian sovereignty over Farsi Island and Iran recognized Saudi sovereignty over the nearby Arabi Island. In an exceptional display of international legal magnanimity, Saudi Arabia agreed that Iran’s Khark Island be given some weight in determining the dividing line between the two countries’ maritime boundary in the middle of the Persian Gulf.
The treatment of the Bahrain issue in Chapter 3 may give the impression that the matter was resolved in consequence of Iranian-Saudi efforts to resolve their immediate bilateral issues. The sovereignty of Bahrain was never a legal issue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Bin Salman correctly implies, without saying so in as many words, the eventual independence of Bahrain was all along a subject of discussion among Iranians themselves (p. 55) — to give up a century and a half of a paper claim over the island, at what price and to what end?
In his treatment of the Iran-Sharjah agreement over Abu Musa Island, Bin Salman’s sober analysis and presentation (pp. 85-88, 96-98, 106-119) takes from the sober approach that Iran and Sharjah themselves adopted toward the matter near the end of Pax Britannica. However, his overall treatment of the islands has serious problems. From a documentary perspective, the text of the 1971 Iran-Sharjah Memorandum of Understanding over Abu Musa was available when Bin Salman completed his research for the book (1997) and yet he reproduced the salient points of the memorandum in reference to a news organization’s synopsis of it (p. 117).
There is a troubling invention by Bin Salman — he repeatedly refers (e.g., pp. 2, 23, 106, 176) to the Tonbs and Abu Musa as “Hormuz islands.” The problem with this moniker is that the three islands have not been considered geographically or historically as a part of the Strait of Hormuz, that distinction being reserved exclusively for the islands of Qeshm, Hormuz, Larak and Hengam on the northern shore and the Quoins, and a number of other smaller islands off the Musandam Peninsula on the southern shore of the strait. To identify the Tonbs and Abu Musa with the strait is to misplace them geographically, as the Tonbs and Abu Musa, while proverbially at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, are a good distance away from the Strait of Hormuz itself. Bin Salman may have intended to covey the message that these islands were once a part of the Kingdom of Hormuz on the Iranian littoral, but then his message of charity is devalued by his assertion that the Qasemi shaikhs of Ras al-Khaimah and Sharjah succeeded to that kingdom’s insular possessions in the eastern gulf (p. 2).
In fairness, Bin Salman prefaces (p. 79) his treatment of the UAE and Iranian claims to the islands by reminding the reader that each side “use[s] historical facts in different ways to support their respective claims.” He then jumps right into the same trap of obfuscation and equivocation as everyone else. “While a detailed examination and weighing of these historical claims is beyond the scope of this book,” he writes (p. 79), “an outline of some of the main arguments from both sides may be in order.” In order, indeed, but it is difficult to see how that exercise is helped by an overwhelming and exclusive reliance on a few secondary sources with questionable objectivity.
There are a number of factual errors and omissions that detract from the book. The assertion is made (p. 79), without an appropriate supporting citation, that Britain recognized the Qasimi ownership of Abu Musa in the 1870s, at a time when the official British maps and surveys showed the island as Iranian. On the say-so of a secondary source, Bin Salman dates the start of the Iranian claim to the Tonbs as 1877 (p. 79), without suggesting a basis or document for it. The lowering of the Iranian flag from the Tonbs and Abu Musa in 1904 is described (p. 80) as a “speedy evacuation” by Iran, without the mention of an agreement between Iran and Britain to that effect — Iran had agreed to the removal of its flag and guards from the islands in exchange for the promise that “an opportunity would be given them of discussing the status of the islands with the British Government… ” See J. G. Lorimer, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman, and Central Arabia (Calcutta, 1915) (Westmead, England: Gregg International, 1970), vol. 1, p. 2138.
Not all of Bin Salman’s sloppiness was picked up by his reader — Sir Denis Wright — whose “practiced eye” he thanks (p. xii) for saving him from “a number of embarrassing errors.” The populated island of Great Tonb in 1971 (when Iran landed troops there), 1997 (when Bin Salman’s research concluded) and 2003 (when the book was published) is suddenly described (p. 81) as a deserted island! The population of Abu Musa is given (p. 81) as 600 Arabs, as if the northern part of the island under Iranian jurisdiction is devoid of its several hundred inhabitants! The preparation for the Iranian landing on the islands on 30 November 1971 is said (p. 121) to have begun in early December !
One major equivocation by Bin Salman relates to the notion that Iran and Britain had embarked on a “package deal” involving the relinquishment of the Iranian claim to Bahrain in return for the recognition of Iranian ownership of the Tonbs and Abu Musa (p. 47). The Shah had indicated this to be a quid pro quo arrangement (p. 40), but Bin Salman sides with the former British ambassador to Tehran and his reader (p. xii), Sir Denis Wright, who (p. 40) allegedly “made it clear … that Britain was opposed to such package deal.” Yet when it comes to his assessment of the conversations on the same subject between Wright and the Iranian minister of court, Assadollah Alam, as recorded contemporaneously in Alam’s published diaries, Bin Salman disbelieves the British complacency in going along with a package deal (pp. 85-87).
Despite the additional evidence of U.S. archival origin that points to some sort of a quid pro quo arrangement (p. 40), Bin Salman still thinks that talk about the existence of a ”package deal” is speculation (p. 127). Yet if, in Salman’s own words, the solution of the Bahrain problem was a compromise (p. 48) and was sealed as a deal (p. 51), then there had to have been some consideration of equal or greater value flowing to Iran. Otherwise, the relinquishing of the Iranian claim to Bahrain would have been at best a sell out and worst yet an act of unilateral gratuitous abandonment, pure and simple. Bin Salman fails to grasp that Britain did not become the supreme power in Southwest Asia without some straight talk, just as it could not disengage from this theatre without some double talk. For Wright to have rebuffed the Shah on the “package deal” would have been Wright’s utter failure in his diplomatic craft, just as any admission of a package deal to Bin Salman would have been an utter failure as a statesman.
In closing, Bin Salman credits (p. 124) the regional political environment, fostered by the Shah and moderate Arab leaders, for “the ease of Iran’s seizure of the islands.” Naturally, in Bin Salman’s world view there is no room for the possibility that perhaps the stomaching by many Arab leaders of Iran’s arrival at Tonbs and Abu Musa was made all the more easy because of the demerit of Ras al-Khaimah’s claim to the Tonbs and the fact of a prior cooperative agreement between Iran and Sharjah over Abu Musa.
There is a larger moral to the story in Bin Salman’s account of the events of 1968-1971, however. There is much to be said about the benefits of diplomacy and mutual respect between Iran and its Arab neighbors, to view the issues that confront Iran and the various Arab countries of the Persian Gulf as workable bilateral issues without the need for a generalized form of ethnic or ideological indictment. However, the most lacking at this time in the Persian Gulf is the sort of public courage demonstrated in 1968-71 by the Shah of Iran, King of Saudi Arabia, and the Emirs of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The unnecessary deference by the present ruling elites to radical and ultra-orthodox among them makes result-oriented diplomacy a dubious pursuit.
About Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk (trapworks.com). Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features in iranian.com