Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has embarked on a scheme to increase the population of the Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf to solidify sovereignty over the area. 

During an interview with the state broadcaster Monday, IRGC Navy Commander Alireza Tangsiri announced the construction of approximately 900 residential units by his force for the people on the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa. 

The measures by the IRGC are in line with the Islamic Republic’s policy to encourage people to live in the islands, where living conditions are dire in the absence of basic facilities. The government has also announced it is mulling over a plan to give free plots of land measuring 300sq meters (3,230sq feet) to anyone who commits to living on them. Moreover, it will also offer loans to build a home, as part of a national homeownership scheme, in a bid to incentivise Iranians to populate the contested area. 

The three Persian Gulf islands have historically been part of Iran, proof of which can be corroborated by historical and geographical documents. However, the UAE has repeatedly laid claim to the islands, describing the situation as “the continued occupation by the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The three islands fell under British control in 1921 but on November 30, 1971, a day after British forces left the region and just two days before the UAE was to become an official federation, Mohammad Reza Shah – the last monarch of Iran -- sent the Iranian navy to secure all three. Iranian forces remain on the islands, with only Abu Musa having a civilian population which is less than two thousand. 

Tangsiri reiterated that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has personally ordered efforts to increase the islands’ population “as a means to increase their security. We believe that we should settle the people on these islands so that our friends do not fear that we want to establish a military base against them," he stated, referring to Arab countries of the region who have collectively asserted the United Arab Emirates' right to sovereignty over the islands. 

IRGC Navy Commander Alireza Tangsiri

The Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- a regional organization bringing together six countries of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia -- repeatedly expresses support for “the right of the State of the UAE to regain sovereignty over her three islands and over the territorial waters, the airspace, the continental shelf, and the economic zone of the three islands, as they are an integral part of the State of the United Arab Emirates.” 

Like China did in December, Russia signed a statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council in early July challenging Iran's ownership of three islands. Last week, the GCC foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and GCC Secretary General Jasem Albudaiwi published a joint statement following their meeting in New York expressing “their support for the United Arab Emirates’ call to reach a peaceful solution to the dispute.”

Speaking at the annual United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimy also reiterated her country’s demand that Iran stop its “occupation” of the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa. She added that the UAE “continues to seek a resolution, either through direct negotiation or through the International Court of Justice. This has been our firm stance for decades.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends breakfast with the Foreign Ministers of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council Nations in New York on September 18, 2023.

On Monday, Iran's permanent mission to the UN rejected the claim as “baseless,” saying, “Iran regards such groundless statements as violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a member of the United Nations and a gross violation of international law and the United Nations Charter.” 

Tangsiri's remarks came against the backdrop of a series of maritime incidents involving Iran's seizure and harassment of vessels that prompted the US to strengthen its military presence in the region. This also came as Arab countries have stepped up efforts to claim the three islands leveraging their relations with Russia and China to sideline Iran. 

In recent months, Tehran's military forces have hijacked several Western tankers in what is seen as retaliation for previous Western seizures of Iranian oil. Iran's introduction of advanced maritime weaponry prompted Washington to extend armed protection to commercial ships traversing the Strait of Hormuz. In July, the US Defense Department announced the deployment of F-35 jet fighters and a Navy destroyer to the Middle East. 

Each day, 85 vessels, primarily oil tankers, pass through the Strait of Hormuz on average. A substantial portion of the world's crude oil is transported through these waters and thus, it has strategic importance.

Highlighting the strategic significance of the Strait of Hormuz, the IRGC Navy commander said that “the island of Greater Tunb, resembling an unsinkable aircraft carrier, is strategically positioned in the middle of the Strait of Hormuz, with full control over the entrance and exit routes of the strait.” 

Tangsiri added that the three islands along with Farvar, Sirri, and Lesser Farvar islands provide complete dominance over the entry and exit routes of the region. 

The Persian Gulf has numerous small islands with about 20 residential ones under Iran’s rule as well as about 20 without any local residents. Most islands are sparsely populated, with some being barren, and some utilized for communication, military, or as ship docks. 

Tangsiri said, “Foreigners have long cast covetous eyes on this region,” noting that the region’s vast oil and gas resources have further grown their eagerness.

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