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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Abu Musa Island

The island of Abu Musa, 60 kilometers north of the UAE's Arabian Gulf coast, had been part of the sheikhdoms that came to comprise the United Arab Emirates for hundreds of years, and had since the 1920s been ruled from Sharjah. Iran occupied the northern part since November 1971.

Nearly 15 kilometres in circumference, and roughly circular, Abu Musa had a maximum diameter of 5 kilometres, and rises to over 100 meters at its highest point, Jebel Halwa. Most of the island is, however, low-lying. The shallow waters immediately surrounding the island rapidly plunge to depths of well over 60 meters.

Nothing is known of the wildlife or archaeology of the island, but Abu Musa was believed to have been a major stopping-off point for sailors up and down the Gulf for thousands of years. Historical records stated that the island was also used as a base for fishing and for the grazing of livestock after winter rains. Red oxide (haematite) deposits on the island were mined briefly by a German company on the island at the beginning of the twentieth century, leading to a diplomatic row between Germany and Britain, which then handled foreign policy for the Emirates.

Iran forcibly seized the Abu Musa island and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands from the United Arab Emirates in the early 1970s, during the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi, although joint sovereignty was maintained until 1994. Iran shared control of Abu Musa with the United Arab Emirates after a 1971 agreement between Iran and the Emirate of Sharjah (one of the seven Emirates of the UAE). Iran seized two other islands, Greater and Lesser Tunb in 1971. In April 1992, Iran expelled South Asian workers from Abu Musa, asserting full control of the island.

Iran deployed Chinese HY-2 "Silkworm" anti-ship missiles along the Iranian coast of the Persian Gulf, on Abu Musa island, on Qeshm Island and on Sirri Island. On 22 March 1995 US Secretary of Defense William Perry said that Iran had positioned chemical weapons near the Strait of Hormuz. It was reported that Iran had placed chemical weapons on Abu Musa island, specifically 155mm artillery shells. The presence of chemical weapons on Abu Musa at any time remained unconfirmed as of July 2008. Overall certainty of the existant or extent of Iran's chemical warfare program had decreased, especially in US intelligence reporting, after 2003.

Iran built up military capabilities on the island, including constructing an airport and upgrading port facilities. In 1994 and 1995 Iran stationed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldiers on the islands, as well as US-made Hawk anti-aircraft missile batteries, artillery and eventually Silkworm anti-ship missiles. There were several hundred troops there in October 1994, and by March 1995 the total number of Iranian military personnel had gone up to over a thousand. As of early 1995 the Iranian presence on Abu Musa included a Hawk battery, some artillery, and about ten Korean War-vintage tanks. Iran also improved some fortifications or berms around the edge of the island. Subsequently, it was suggested Iran had deployed the highly capable C-801 anti-ship missiles (with a range of 130km) on the island.

The islands are strategically located near the Strait of Hormuz shipping lanes. During a press conference on 18 December 1997, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Maleki stated that Iran supported the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, but reserved the option of closing off the shipping route if it was threatened. Locations such as Abu Musa and Tunbs in the Strait of Hormuz has provided staging grounds for attacks during the so-called Tanker War in the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War.

In March 2000, Jane's Defence Weekly obtained the first commercially-released 1 m resolution satellite image of Abu Musa, taken by the IKONOS satellite on 29 October 1999. According to analysis conducted for Jane's, "the most remarkable aspect about Abu Musa is its lack of major military infrastructure and fortification, despite the fact that it has been under Iranian occupation for 29 years." A series of deep cuttings on the northeast part of the island could be a storage complex for vehicles and possibly anti-ship missile systems.

Several hundred inhabitants lived on the part of the island administered by the UAE. The UAE had offered to hold bilateral talks on ownership of the island or to submit the issue to international arbitration, but Iran continually refused. Both the UN General Assembly and the Arab League have since issued statements reaffirming their support for the UAE's position and that the Iranian's illegally occupied the islands in question. Iranian authorities and academics have refused to acknowledge the claims, insisting that historically Abu Musa and Tunbs were part of Iranian territory. In December 2006, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council urged Iran either through direct negotiations or by referring the issue to the International Court of Justice to work with them and the United Arab Emirates toward a peaceful resolution of the overall status of the island. The Council of Arab Parliamentary Union also reaffirmed their support for the Emirates in February 2007.

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Page last modified: 24-07-2011 04:41:09 ZULU