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The dispute over the Shatt-ul-Arab. A History

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    Posted: 29-Mar-2007 at 08:01
A very current affair, esepcially with regard to the kidnapping/arrest of the Briish Sailors. Here is a historical persepctive

Dispute over the Shatt al-Arab in Persian Gulf has a long history and has been theme of power struggles in the region for many centuries. In fact, the historical dimension of this issue reflects, on the one hand, the way the issue of boundaries has changed with the changing powers, and on the other, the interests of these powers with respect to boundary issues. In this framework, three successive periods can be identified in the history of the Shatt al-Arab dispute: the rivalry between regional empires, where the conflict over boundaries was manifested in efforts to demarcate them through fluid tribal allegiances; imperialist penetration, where the conflict over boundaries was manifested in efforts to demarcate them through fixed geographic points; and nationalist rivalry, where the conflict over boundaries has been manifested in efforts to demarcate them through variable cultural characteristics of populations.

The first period, rivalry between regional empires, may be traced from the early Islamic period. The rise of Islam in the seventh century led to the fall of Persia and its absorption into the emerging Islamic Empire. However, this absorption was incomplete, for with the weakening of the Abbasid Caliphate a distinctly Persian power reemerged. The emergence of the Shi'i-Sunni schism in the late seventh century was the first manifest sign of the fragmentation of the empire. The conquest and consequent incorporation of the Middle East into the Ottoman empire in the fourteenth century, and the rise of the Safawid Dynasty in Persia in the sixteenth century placed two empires at loggerheads in the Middle East, each seeking expansion at the expense of the other. (The Safawid Dynasty presented itself as the protector of the Shi'is, while the Ottoman Empire claimed the role of protector of the Sunnis.)

The Mesopotamian region (Iraq) became a target of the rivalry between the two empires. Under Shah Ismail, the Safawid ruler of Persia, Iraq fell under Persian occupation in 1508. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I regained control of Iraq in 1514, after the battle of Jaldiran. In 1529, Iraq was occupied by Persia, but was retaken by the Ottoman Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent in 1543.

This tug-of-war over Mesopotamia reflected, in effect, the precarious military balance between the two empires on the one hand, and on the other, the administrative weaknesses of each of them. Neither could decisively defeat the other and achieve permanent military control over Iraq; nor could either establish effective administrative control when in possession of it. Since the issue could not be resolved through military means, a political solution was attempted in the first treaty between the two empires, the Amassia Treaty of 1555. Although the treaty endured for only twenty years, the region remained an Ottoman province until 1623, when it was again occupied by Persia. However, in 1638, the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV drove the Persians out of Iraq by capturing Baghdad. In 1639, the Treaty of Zuhab was signed establishing a peace and defining the border between the two empires.

In this way, conflict between the two empires was contained in a frontier zone and was manifested in shifting tribal allegiances, inter-tribal conflicts and raiding. In the 1639 treaty, the frontier zone was over one hundred miles wide, between the Zagros Mountains in the east and the Tigris and Shatt al-Arab rivers in the west.

While the containment of conflict was short-lived, the 1639 treaty is significant because it became the basis of future treaties and, in effect, established the framework of future contentions over borders. By 1730, the two empires were again in full-scale war with possession of Iraq a focus of conflict, A treaty in 1746 between the two empires re-established the 1639 boundary, affirming this as the point of reference of future negotiations and the focus of future conflicts.

The two frontier areas of particular concern were Kurdish areas in the north and Arabistan (Khuzistan) in the south. Both areas were inhabited by tribes who maintained a precarious autonomy by intriguing between Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Kurdish tribes inhabited the Zagros Mountains in the north, which constituted a strategic buffer zone between the two hostile empires. In efforts to establish suzerainty in the region occurring about 1806 and again in 1811, the Ottoman and Persian empires were at war in the area. In both cases, the results were indecisive, and the empires were, for the most part, each content to allow the region to maintain a semi-independent status, functioning as a check to the expensive ambitions of the other.

However, the issue of suzerainty over Arabistan (renamed Khuzistan in 1925) was much more volatile one. Bounded by the Kerkhah and Shatt al-Arab rivers on the west, the Arab Gulf on the south, and the Zagros Mountains on the north and east, the region was strategically situated in relation to major navigational arteries feeding into the Gulf, as well as the important Shatt al-Arab port of Basra. While the region was vital to the interests and security of Iraq, its remoteness and inaccessibility due to rivers and marshes rendered its subjugation to Ottoman authority problematic. Furthermore, the Arab tribes that inhabited the area gave nominal allegiance to the Persian Empire in order to maintain their independence from Ottoman encroachment, while the topography and distance protected them from unwanted Persian interference. The treaties of 1639 and 1746 simply gave recognition to the effective autonomy of the Arab tribes of the region, which the Ottomans could not change, and to their nominal Persian allegiance, which the Persians could not enforce. Thus, the region enjoyed virtual independence from its two powerful and antagonistic neighbours. Map 1 delineates this nominal frontier line between the two empires.

Throughout the eighteenth century, hostilities between the Persian and Turkish empires continued to wax and wane. One of the most significant events was the Persian occupation of Basra in 1776. They held it until 1779, when an internal disorganization of the empire, which was precipitated by Karim Khan's death, resulted in their evacuation. Hence, the city peacefully reverted to Ottoman suzerainty. In 1821, the two empires again went to war. This conflict was resolved by the first Treaty of Erzerum in 1823. The treaty reaffirmed the indeterminate boundaries between the two empires of earlier treaties. It was to be the last boundary convention of this kind, for new powers with different interests had entered the arena.

By the nineteenth century, the growth of British imperialists power in the region had transformed the power balance and changed the nature of the conflict. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British imperialist interests had eliminated in succession Portuguese, Dutch and French commercial and political penetration of the Middle East. By 1820, Britain had, in effect, turned the Persian Gulf into a British lake and turned its attention to Ottoman Iraq and Persia in its efforts to protect British interests in India against European imperialist rivalries, develop a secure line of commerce between India and Britain via the Middle East, and expand commercial markets in the region.

By the nineteenth century, Russia was Britain's only serious imperialist rival in the Middle East. Russia's expansive ambitions vis-a-vis Persia were manifested in the Russo-Persian wars of 1804-13 and 1826-28, which resulted in Russia's absorption of Persian territories along their common border. The Treaty of Turkmanchai of 1828 gave Russia not only Persian territory but also a commanding influence in Persian affairs previously enjoyed only by Britain. In the same period the Russo-Turkish wars of 1806-12 and 1828-29 increased Russian influence in Ottoman affairs at the expense of Britain. As a result, British imperialist policy became obsessed with Russophobia-fear of Russian designs on the British Empire.

Stability of the Ottoman and Persian empires as buffers against further rival imperialist expansion became important strategies of both Russian and British policies in the Middle East. This common interest in stabilizing the region as a buffer zone brought them into cooperation and collusion in setting Ottoman-Persian disputes, even while they competed and conspired against each other. Hence, both supported the ascension of Muhammad Mirza to the throne of Persia in 1834 to forestall the disorganization of the empire in fractious rivalry for the throne. Furthermore, in the same year, they established an understanding to maintain the integrity and independence of Persia; this was renewed in 1838. In effect Britain and Russia had control of Persian affairs and were cooperating to share power between themselves.

This common interest in stabilizing the region resulted in British and Russian cooperation in intervening in the frontier disputes between Ottoman Iraq and Persia. In 1843, they set up a joint Turko-Persian Commission to settle the boundary dispute. But Russia and Britain were represented on the commission and had mediating powers. This commission resulted in the signing of the second Treaty of Erzerum in 1847. Map 2.

The second Treaty of Erzerum did not reflect the settlement of regional issues with respect to territorial claims. Rather, it reflected the commonality of imperialist interests with respect to stabilizing zones of influence. In effect, the treaty imposed upon the Ottoman and Persian Empires a settlement that served the imperialist interests of Britain and Russia by disposing of disputed claims in principle and leaving the settlement of detail to a Delimitation Commission on which Britain and Russia were also to have mediation powers. Utilizing the 1823 Treaty of Erzerum as the point of reference, the treaty established who had sovereignty over contested regions along the frontier.

A Delimitation Commission was first formed in 1848. Successive commissions worked intermittently and largely unsuccessfully at demarcating the border, being interrupted by the Crimean War (1854-56) and the Anglo-Persian War (1856-57). The Russo-Turkish War of 1876 finally brought these efforts to a close.

The second Treaty of Erzerum was no more effective in resolving Persian-Ottoman conflict in the frontier than earlier treaties had been. Throughout the rest of the century, each continued to encroach upon the other's territory whenever the opportunity arose. Generally, the Ottomans made successful encroachments in the north, while the Persians advanced upon Ottoman territories in the south.

During the half century following the treaty, Britain acquired interests, privileges and priorities in Mesopotamia that effectively made it a British sphere of influence. The strategic importance Britain placed on Mesopotamia as a line of communications and defence of its eastern empire is reflected in the efforts and costs. It expended in completely surveying the country and its river systems. By the end of the century, British had acquired a dominant commercial and strategic position in Mesopotamia, to which the 1847 treaty had contributed.

In Persia, too, Britain assiduously expanded its influence as it mediated between Ottoman and Persian conflicts. Unlike Mesopotamia, where the growth of British influence was unimpeded by imperialists' rivalries, in Persia, Britain had to contend with Russian competition. With Russia panting on its northern frontier, and the British firmly in command of the Gulf to the south, Persia played the two powers off against each other in an effort to maintain its autonomy. The two powers competed in a race for vast concessions to exploit Persia's natural resources. Each undertook to build communications and transportation infrastructures that would facilitate the exploitation of these resources. As Lord Curzon, a main architect of British policy in the Middle East in the period, observed, Persia was regarded as one of the key pieces 'on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world.'

British and Russian interest in the Shatt al-Arab had changed significantly since the 1847 negotiations, however. The development of the British oil industry in Khuzistan resulted in increased shipping on the Shatt al-Arab. The drilling equipment and other heavy material required larger ships than the Karun anchorage at Muhammara could accommodate. These ships had to unload their cargoes in the Shatt al-Arab off Muhammara. On the basis of the earlier conventions, this was in Ottoman territorial waters. Neither Russia nor Britain was anxious to back the Explanatory Note, as both were fearful of German influence at Istanbul and more secure in their stranglehold on Persia. Britain, in particular, was anxious to extend Persian sovereignty in the Shatt al-Arab, at least to the extent required by its own interests.

Thus, in the face of the potential bipartite settlement of the border issue along lines that were no longer commensurate with their particular interests, Britain and Russia intervened to reestablish their mediating powers. This intervention resulted in the signing, on November 4, 1913, of another protocol which was affirmed in the process verbaux of 1914. This agreement described the boundary in details along the lines established in the 1847 treaty and subsequent conventions, but with some expansion of Persian territorial control. The most notable from the present perspective was the inclusion of the Shatt al-Arab anchorage off Muhammara in the demarcation of the Persian border along the river. This is reflected in Map 3. Furthermore, the protocol established a Delimitation Commission on which Britain and Russia were vested with arbitral powers to decide all disputes (Articles II and III). About 227 boundary pillars were erected by the Delimitation Commission, before World War I brought this effort to a close.

In the interwar period, the border issue between Persia and Iraq changed dramatically as a result of changing power configurations of the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the First World War and the subsequent dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the Fertile Crescent was divided between the French and the British in accordance with the Sykes Picot Treaty, which had been surreptitiously concluded between France and Britain. Iraq fell under British dominance, to merge as a semi-independent state on August 23, 1921.

King Faisal I visited Iran on April 22, 1932, to be confronted by an Iranian request to adjust the border according to the thalweg principle, i.e. following the midpoint of the river's narrow and deep main channel of navigation. This request was rejected by Iraq. Tension began to mount. Charges and countercharges of border violations, trespassing, hazardous navigation and misconduct were raised by both sides. Iraq appealed its case to the League of Nations on November 29, 1934.

No solution was obtained at the League of Nations. Both Iraq and Iran resumed direct negotiations after they had respectively agreed to withdraw the case on April 27 and May 4, 1936. Five months later, on October 29, 1936, a coup d'etat by General Bakr Sidky overthrew the government in Baghdad. The newly appointed government of Hekmat Suleiman agreed to make the border between Iraq and Iran follow the thalweg for only four miles opposite Abadan. This agreement was consecrated in the Iraqi-Iranian Frontier Treaty of 1937.

Map 4 illustrates the frontiers between Iraq and Iran according to the 1937 treaty. As it reflects, Iran secured a territorial gain in the Shatt al-Arab. This gain was opposite the port of Abadan - the site of the Anglo-Persian oil refinery. Again, the change served British interests by consolidating administration of the oil anchorage and refinery.

The 1937 treaty stabilized the boundary conflict, although it hardly settled it. While this treaty represented the first accord where Iraq, as a national entry, represented its own interests on the border issue, Iraq at the time was nevertheless under indirect British tutelage. Thus, border frictions continued to plague relations between Iraq and Iran, but these were superseded by the regional manifestations of international events that were the primary concern of the British.

The Second World War brought the colonial empires to an end and the Cold War to the forefront of world politics.

Through the Baghdad Pact of 1955, the Middle East became the West's front-line tier against Soviet expansion. Iraq, Iran Turkey and Pakistan joined with Britain in forming the (C.E.N.T.O.) Middle East Treaty Organisation. Thus, Iraq and Iran became allies in a Western military alliance formed to forestall Soviet penetration of the region.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, nationalist unrest (focused particularly against corrupt governments and neo-imperialists domination) swept across the Middle East. Nationalist forces challenged autocratic regimes in one country after another; in 1952, the Egyptian monarchy was toppled by Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser's nationalist revolution, and the powers of the Iranian monarchy were significantly curtailed by Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh's nationalist government; in 1956, Sulaiman Pasha al-Nabulsi's nationalist government; in 1956, challenged the power of the Jordanian monarchy; in 1958, Syria joined with Nasser's Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, and a civil war broke out in Lebanon. In July 1958, the staunchest pro-British ally in the region fell when the Iraqi monarchy was toppled by General Abdul Karim Kasim in a military coup.

Within less than a year (1953), Mossadegh's nationalist government in Iran had been toppled by a military coup which the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States engineered. The event signalled the emergence of the United States as the main external actor in the Middle East, in effect taking Britain's traditional role in the area. Furthermore, the Shah was now indebted to the U.S. for regaining his autocratic powers. The growing relationship between American military strategy in the region and the Shah following the coup d'etat was made explicit in 1957 by the Eisenhower Doctrine, which the Shah welcomed.

The Iraqi nationalist revolution of 1958 sent shock waves through Iran's ruling class and the West. In effect, the revolution shifted the balance of power in the Arab world to nationalist forces. Furthermore, it tore an irreparable hole in the Baghdad pack alliance. The power balance in the region was disturbed.

While no serious confrontation took place, the border issue became the central issue in Iraq-Iran relations. Republican Iraq, for the first time a fully independent actor in world affairs, not only resisted Iranian pressures for further adjustments in the border but also asserted nationalist interests vis-a-vis its frontiers.

However, Iraq's internal politics in the 1960's passed through political turmoil. In less than ten years, Iraq experienced five different regimes and three coups d'etat. Every government, however, inherited a rebellion of Kurdish forces in northern Iraq.

Events moved fast and in April 1969, Iran abrogated the Frontier treaty of 1937. Announcing this in the Iranian Parliament, Iran's deputy minister of foreign affairs declared: 'On the basis of established international principles, the 1937 Frontier Treaty is considered null and valid ... the Imperial Government does not recognize, along the entire length of Shatt al-Arab any principle except the established principle of international law, i.e. the median of base line....'

Following Iran's abrogation of the 1937 treaty, relations between Iraq and Iran took a sharp decline. Iran continued to supply arms and offer a haven to the Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Iraq accused the Shah of engineering an attempted coup d'etat against the Ba'ath Government in 1970. Propaganda warfare escalated between the two countries. Military units were concentrated along the borders.

A military clash between Iraq and Iran erupted on April 14, 1971, in the Khanaqin region of northern Iraq. On November 30, 1971, Iran occupied the three Gulf islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb.

Iraq severed its diplomatic relations with Iran and Britain in protest against the occupation. No military action, however, was taken by Iraq or any other Arab country against Iran.

While border clashes between Iraq and Iran recurred throughout the period 1971 to 1974, the Iraqi army, locked in internecine war with the Kurds, was hardly in a position to resist Iranian pressures. The Kurdish rebellion was a serious drain on Iraqi military and economic capabilities. In February 1974, Iraq took the border dispute to the United Nations Security Council. Negotiations to settle all pending issues were initiated. It was another year, however, before a settlement was reached.

Saddam Hussain, the present President of Iraq, and the Shah of Iran met in Algiers on March 6, 1975. In the treaty that resulted from this meeting, the following terms were reached: first, Iran would cease its support for the Kurdish rebellion; second, the frontier between Iraq and Iran would be adjusted, including the following of the thalweg along the entire length of the Shatt al-Arab; third, the propaganda war between the two countries would cease, along with Iraq's active opposition to Iran's occupation of the three islands and any interference in each other's internal affairs. In 1979, the Shah of Iran was toppled by a revolution led by Islamic revivalists under Ayatollah Khomeini. President Saddam Hussain of Iraq may have seen war as inevitable because of the incompatibility of Iran's Islamic fundamentalism and Iraq's state and pan-Arab nationalism. He may also have seen it as a propitious time for Iraq to attack. Iran appeared to be weak, vulnerable and in chaos. The Iranian military, in particular, was assumed to be in disarray after extensive purges and the cut-off military supplies and training by its former major supplier, the USA, expecting victory in a matter of days, with little international criticism and considerable regional support.

In addition, Saddam could make political, economic and territorial gains. By recovering territorial rights ceded to the Shah, he could simultaneously bolster the security of Iraq's border and the security of the Ba'athist regime. Potential bonuses included the overthrow of Khomeini and control of Iran's oil-rich Khuzistan province through liberation of the Arabs there.

Iraq's stated war aims for its 22 September 1980 attack on Iran were to recover rights of exclusive navigation of the Shatt al-Arab, to regain several islands held by Iran since 1971 - Map-5.


Be that as it may, after 98 years of war, 130 billion dollars aid provided to Iraq, possessing over 5,000 tanks, against Iran's 1,000, Iraq failed to gain a single war objective.

Islamic revolution in post ceasefire and post Imam Khomeini period is stronger than before the Gulf War; further, Iran has total control of Shatt al-Arab's approaches; and Khuzistan remains part of the Iranian Islamic Republic.

But the amazing fact emerging from this war torn history of the Shatt is, that Iran and Mesopotamian region have enjoyed complete peace and harmony whenever these regions were administered from a single power centre - the Akhmanian epoch, followed by the Sassanid period, succeeded by the Muslim sweap and ideological sway of the region from Gibraltar to Indus. The Abbasid period is included in this Muslim ideological sweap and sway and Baghdad must not misconstrue that period as Iraq's golden age; as Abbasid court culturally was Persianised.

The deduction emerging powerfully from this analysis is, that, whenever Iraqis have nature's blessings to exercise free, fair, direct electoral franchise to choose their guardians, in place of self-imposed dictators, Baghdad shall cease to have a minority government. Laws of Demography would then prevail. The largest segments of Iraqi population, the Shias, forming over 55% of the population, in concert with over 20%, persecuted Kurds and millions of Sunni Have Nots, would become the formulators of Iraqi foreign, interalia policy. That would be the beginning of lasting period of peace and harmony between Iran and Iraq.

That would also be the beginning of the Muslim Commonwealth of Nations. In this Commonwealth, each region would keep its UN seat, run its own administration as a fully sovereign state, but have closest possible coordination amongst the Muslim Commonwealth on matters of Defence, Foreign Policy and Trade Affairs, thus fulfilling Allama Iqbal's dream: Tehran becoming Geneva of the rest.

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