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Report of the International symposium on Modern Boundaries of Iran "Problems and practices of Iranian boundaries"


By: Professor Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh

Arab League Ambassador was told of Iran's indisputable rights to the islands of Tunbs and Abu Musa


An international symposium was organized at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies on 9th and 10th October 2002 by the Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies/SOAS, in association with the Society for Contemporary Iranian Studies/SOAS and Urosevic Research Foundation/SOAS London.

The symposium began with the opening remarks by Dr. M. Ala, President of the Society for Contemporary Iranian Studies, and was followed by an introduction to the symposium by Professor Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, chairman of Urosevic Research Foundation. In his introduction Dr. Mojtahed-Zadeh stated:

Boundary and territoriality have often been the cause of conflicts and erosion of security in international relations, especially in West Asia where not only many of territorial and boundary issues have not been settled, but also emergence of new nations adds to the prevailing territorial and boundary conflicts. With at least fifteen countries surrounding her, Iran has the largest number of neighbours and this is bound to increase her territorial and boundary sensitivities.

In spite of all this, Iran is one of a handful of the world's major nations that has not catalogued and analyzed information about its boundaries. This is mainly because Iran's boundaries have not, as yet, been systematically and comprehensively studied. This shortcoming is particularly noticeable when remembering the fact that although such concepts as state, territory, and boundary have been formulated in Europe of 19th century, they are rooted in the ancient Persian civilization.

Apart from legendary Arash the Archer, the range of whose arrows determined Iran's frontiers, historical documents confirm that the Achaemenids of 500 BC founded the first empire of global aspiration and fashioned the concepts of "state", "territory" and "frontiers." About a thousand years later the Persian concept of frontier developed into the concept of "boundary" similar to the modern sense of the term "a line in space that separated" Iran from her neighbours. 10th century epic Shahnameh of Ferdosi reports that the Sassanid Bahram IV (420 - 438 AD) commissioned construction of boundary pillars between Iran and Turan to its east. He decided that River Oxus (Jeyhun) would form river boundary between the two sides. In his account of this development, Ferdosi says:

بر آورد ميلي زسنگ و ز گچ كه كس را ز ايران و ترك و خلج

نبودي گذر جـز بفرمان شاه همان نيـز جيحون ميانجي بـه راه

Literally meaning: he constructed a pillar of stones and plaster so that no one from Iran or Turk or other nationals would pass beyond unless permitted by the Shah who has also made Jeyhun (River Oxus) a median in the way (between the two).

This is indeed creation of boundary line within the modern forms of the concept. This is Ferdosi saying a thousand years ago that boundary pillars were erected six hundred years earlier, and people were prohibited from going beyond them unless permitted by the king himself, which must have amounted to the early form of a passport from the Sassanid State.

Iran today needs to compile and catalogue not only historical data about evolution of its concept of territoriality and boundary, but also is in need of seriously studying its boundaries with her neighbours. It is in response to this need that this symposium is designed, with the help of Iranian and international experts, to pave the way for compilation of a comprehensive book on Iranian boundaries.

The first session began with an address by Dr. Bruce Ingham, Chairman of the Centre for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS. In his address, Dr. Ingham gave an account of mixed Persian/Arabic ethnic background of the tribes all around the Persian Gulf, traditionally known as 'Arab tribes'. He added that the name 'Persian Gulf' was first adopted by the Arabs and not by the Iranians. Early Arab and Islamic historian/ geographers called it 'Al-Bahr al-Faresi' or 'the Persian Sea'. But centuries later they fashioned the term 'Al-Khalij al-Faresi', meaning 'the Persian Gulf'.

Chairing the session, Dr. Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh confirmed Dr. Ingham's assessment of the emergence of the name 'Persian Gulf'. He added that one has to also remember that the early history of this name goes back to the ancient times when together Greek and Persian civilisations began to shape mankind's common heritage of civilisation. The Greeks named this sea as Sinus Persiqus, meaning the 'Persian Gulf', the Persians called it Parsa Draya, meaning 'Persian Sea'. In fact, early Arab and Islamic scholars first adopted the Persian version of the name in the form of Al-Bahr al-Faresi, meaning "Persian Sea", and it was only in the 19th century that they gradually adopted the Greek Sinus Persiqus in the form of Al-Khalij al-Faresi, meaning the Persian Gulf.

Iran's Western Boundaries

The second session dealt with Iran's western boundaries with speakers from Iran and Britain. Among them Dr. Hamid Ahmadi, head of department of political science at Tehran University, examined the role of border tribes in shaping boundary lines. Dr. Richard Schofield, head of GRC Kings College London, discussed Iran's boundaries in the west with Turkey and Iraq. Dr. Masud Moradi, Dean of the Faculty of Letters at Zahedan University examined the Berlin Congress decision in settling the Issue of Qotur between Iran and the Ottoman Empire in favor of Iran.

They stated that Iran's modern boundaries in the west began to emerge in the 17th century, predating the emergence of the European concept of 'boundary'. Some of these borders were settled by war and others through negotiation, mediation, or arbitration, and even as a result of international decision at the Berlin Congress. Cross-border tribes have influenced formation of boundaries between Iran and Turkey, which is amongst Iran's most stable with no major differences between the two countries.

Emergence of Iran's boundaries with Iraq also dates back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Local tribes have had a significant role in shaping the political geography of western Iranian boundaries. Some of these tribes consider themselves 'Arab' although they are from Mesopotamia, which, for more than two thousand years, had been part of Iranian realm.

Land and river boundaries in Mesopotamia have been the cause of much controversy between Iran and Iraq, with a catalogue of political and military ups and downs; pacts and protocols; and a major war that lasted for eight years. These controversies have expanded over several decades to include almost all aspects of political relations between the two countries. Even the war has not settled these controversies and there are still many instances of territorial and boundary issues that prevent peace and cooperation between the two neighbours. Today's crisis in Iraq is bound to influence Iranian borderlands. Even if the United States employed the utmost care in preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, its war on Iraq is bound to cause the influx of new waves of refugees. Iran, like any other nation, is naturally opposed to any pre-emptive or unilateral military intervention in Iraq or any other country. This is not to overlook the fact that Iraq of Baath Party is indeed a serious threat to peace and security of West Asia. Iraq has invaded Iran and Kuwait, and has used chemical and biological weapons against Iranians and its own citizens. These past experience, together with the fact that Baghdad has refused to renounce all territorial claims on border areas of neighboring countries, amount to no less than serious threats to the security of the region.

Iran's boundaries in the Caucasus

Professor Mohammad Hassan Ganji, the father of geographical studies in Iran and Dr. Bahram Amirahmadian of Tehran University dealt with Iran's boundaries in the Caucasus, which began to take shape in the wake of the conclusion of the treaties of Golestan (1813) and Turkmenchai (1828). These boundaries were first defined with Russia largely against Iran's territorial rights and interests. The Khanats and local chiefs played an important role throughout history in shaping the political geography of the border regions between Iran and Russia. The Soviets, especially under Stalin, introduced serious changes to the regional political geography by moving the population around and turning occupied territories into a number of new republics. In some instances, they changed the historical names of geographical localities for questionable reasons.

Improved Soviet-Iranian relations in the 1960s allowed the two sides to consolidate existing boundaries in most cases and began cross-border co-operation in various fields. The fall of Soviet Union and emergence of independent or autonomous republics of Armenia, Karabakh, Nakhjevan and Republic of Azerbaijan have brought territorial and boundary sensitivities into the open once again. These territorial and border sensitivities have led to new conflicts but they could also precipitate cooperation in the region.

The Caspian Sea and Iran's boundaries

Professor D. Bavand of Imam Sadeq University, Dr. Abbas Maleki of Caspian Studies Centre - Tehran, Dr. Kaveh Afrasiabi of New York State University of Binghamton, and Miss Roshanak Taghavi of Boston College examined various aspects of legal and geographical implications of the Caspian boundaries, agreeing among them that:

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and emergence of the US geopolitics of New World Order, a combination of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia have emerged as one geo-strategic 'region' with enormous geopolitical significance. US oil and gas companies have invaded this region and with the signing of many oil and gas agreements, the United States has been able to claim substantial 'interest' in this region. The US's strategy of neutralizing Iran's unique position between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf has influenced Iran's relations with many of her neighbours, including Russia, Turkey, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Diverting oil and gas pipelines of the Caspian Sea from the Iranian routes, on the other hand, has had far reaching consequences for Iran's national interests in the region and has put Iran at a disadvantage in the geo-economic rivalries with her neighbours. Meanwhile, this strategy has substantially increased tension in Iran-US relationship with major security implications for the rest of West Asia. Though Iran prefers the Caspian Sea to be declared as a condominium, or a sea of common use for the five littoral states, it realizes that even in the case of full condominium no country can define its boundaries on the coastline. That is to say that any legal regime division of at least coastal waters among the littoral states is inevitable. Yet, the fact is that bilateral agreements on coastal curve up, though legally allowed, cannot replace a comprehensive legal regime decided by the five and satisfactory to the five.

Iran's boundaries in the Persian Gulf

Chaired by Dr. Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, Professor of geopolitics at London and Tarbiat Modares universities, the session on territoriality and boundary issues in the Persian Gulf proved to be the most important, the liveliest, the most fruitful, and the longest session of the symposium. Mr. Sohrab Asgari of Tehran University stated that Iran's maritime boundaries in the Persian Gulf have all been settled except in two areas: one is with UAE where territorial claims on islands of Tunbs and Abu Musa by the United Arab Emirates have prevented delimitation of relevant maritime areas. The other area is the north- western end of the Persian Gulf where Iran, Iraq and Kuwait have not been able to define their realms and boundaries. This is mainly because of Iraq is unable to define a starting point for maritime division, owing to its continued claims on Iranian and Kuwaiti border areas.

Although some measures have been foreseen in the existing boundary arrangements to prevent horizontal drilling for extraction from cross-border oil fields, no measure exist to regulate the use of energy from the newly discovered cross-border gas fields. Sizeable gas fields such as South Pars and Arash between Iran on the one hand and Qatar and Kuwait on the other, are the subject of controversies between Iran and these states. However, unlike some areas mentioned previously, cross-border cooperation here can lead to a just and equitable settlement of these controversies.

Having briefly examined the role of the British in the issue of Iran-UAE differences on the islands of Tunb and Abu Musa, Dr. Richard Schofield of GRC, King's College - London gave an impartial account of some historical and legal aspects of the dispute.

This talk left a vague impression with the audience that the reason for British Foreign Secretary's decision of writing on the side of British Government's 1886 map that official maps should no longer be presented to other heads of states was that the map was compiled by mistake and presentation of a mistaken map would be embarrassing. To cast this doubt out, chairman of the session, Dr. Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh explained that the map we are talking about is a 16 square meters document and could in no way be compiled by mistake. The reason for foreign secretary's decision of prohibiting future presentation of official maps was simply to stop the embarrassing display of the hypocrisy of official verification of Iran's ownership and sovereignty over the two Tunbs and Abu Musa islands on the one hand, and claiming the same territories for the rulers of their protectorate emirates on the other.

Inclined to support the position of the UAE vis--vis these islands, H. E. Ali Muhsen Hamid, the Ambassador of the Arab League in London put some questions to the chairman on the subject. The answer to each and every question raised by him was extensive, categorical and backed by irrefutable legal, historical, and geographical documents. Briefly, the Ambassador said that the MOU on Abu Musa between Iran and Sharjah was imposed on Sharjah and as it was signed two days before the creation of the UAE, it was not legal. In his reply Dr. Mojtahed-Zadeh said, first of all Iran did not negotiate with Sharjah and/thus could not impose anything on her. Iran negotiated the MOU with Great Britain acting on behalf of Sharjah, and Britain was much stronger than Iran at the time and Iran could not impose anything on Britain. In fact, the idea that Britain imposed the MOU on Iran and/thus prevented Iran from taking the whole of Abu Musa Island would sound more realistic. Furthermore, the fact that the UAE was created 2 days after the signing of the MOU makes no difference whatsoever, because, firstly Britain was the legal guardian of the emirates at the time and its agreement with Iran was perfectly legal and internationally accepted. Secondly the UAE high Council declared in 1992 that foreign and international undertakings of each member emirate before the creation of the UAE was the legal obligation of the UAE as whole. The Ambassador then said that the UAE asks Iran for negotiation on the subject and Iran does not, and UAE asks Iran to go to the International Court of Justice on the matter, but Iran refuses to do so. Dr. Mojtahed-Zadeh replied: first what your excellency is referring to is but a proof of UAE's hypocrisy, because it asks Iran for negotiations but when Iran goes for negotiations the UAE runs away. Five time so far Iran tried to negotiate with the UAE on the subject, but UAE did not come forward: twice former Iranian foreign minister Dr. Velayati went to Abu Dhabi for talks, but they declined to respond positively, and twice current foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi went to Abu Dhabi for talks with the UAE and they failed even to meet him. For the fifth time, as a result of mediation by Qatar, the two sides sent delegations to Doha for negotiations in 1998. The delegations met in the morning and introduced themselves to each other and went for lunch to get back to start the negotiations. In the afternoon the Iranian delegation went back to the negotiating room, waiting for their UAE counterparts, but instead of returning to the negotiating room they went to the international media declaring that the negotiation had failed because of the Iranian's intransigence. This is how the UAE politicians have been behaving in the past ten years. What failure? The negotiation had not even started to have failed. You see! The UAE talks about wanting to negotiate with Iran but whenever Iran goes for the negotiation they run away because they have nothing to negotiate about. Moreover, it is about a month now that rumors indicate that secret negotiations are taking place between the two parties. Normally in such a situation all those concerned with peaceful settlement of such disputes tend to keep quiet in order to allow the two sides to settle the matter in peace and with free hands. While, not only the authorities in Iran, but also I have asked everybody to be silent on the subject in order to help the talks progress, the Gulf Cooperation Council issued support for Abu Dhabi's claims against Iran. I ask you, is this the time for the GCC to interfere? If the GCC or other Arab's were sincere in wanting a peaceful settlement to UAE claims to these islands, they would, like the Iranians, keep quiet in this particular situation. The problem is that there is no sincerity on the part UAE and GCC. The Arabs have been behaving the same during Iraq's claim to the whole of Shatt al-Arab and parts of Khuzestan. Nothing is new, but I wish you Sir, and other scholars in the Arab world while judging Iran, think about Arab behavior in such matters against Iran as well. On the subject of going to the ICJ, we must know that going to the international courts is the last resort and is used when all other ways have been exhausted. The first way to be examined is direct negotiations for peaceful settlement. How could the UAE refuse to negotiate the matter with Iran but ask Iran to go to the international court? Moreover Iran went to the UN Security Council with the Arabs on this issue and the United Nations turned down the Arab complaint. How could you expect Iran to go to the international bodies twice as soon as her territories are claimed by another state?

The Ambassador subsequently denied that the UAE has ever tried to Arabise and/or internationalize the issue of its claims to these islands, and said that it was former Iranian President Rafsanjani who talked about the "sea of blood" not UAE leaders. Dr. Mojtahed-Zadeh replied that by distributing its position paper in the United Nations on 27 October 1992, the UAE started its efforts for internationalizing of the issue and you and I know very well the UAE has used Arab forums like the GCC and Arab League to habitually issuing statements of support for its claim. Isn't this internationalizing the issue? On the subject of President Rafsanjani's comment about the "Sea of Blood", the Arabs have misunderstood the statement and have been distorting the message for so many years. What President Rafsanjani said was this "those who want to take these islands from Iran must cross a sea of blood". You see the message is quite clear. This message is not about creating a sea of blood for attacking UAE or any Arab country, but it says that if UAE and its Arab friends want to attack Iran to take these Islands, the Iranians will create a sea of blood in "defending" their country. Moreover what Mr. Rafsanjani had in mind when saying this was how Iraq attacked Iran to take her territories, and how Iraq's Arab comrades supported its aggression against Iran. Hence, Mr. Rafsanjani's statement was not offensive; it was defensive, saying if a similar action were to take place against Iran again, the Iranians would defend their country the same way that they did in the case of Iraqi attack.

As the exchange was conducted in a very friendly atmosphere and with mutual respect, the Arab League Ambassador privately expressed hopes that similar friendly academic exchange with larger Arab audience in an Arab country could help broadening mutual understanding between the two sides.

Iran's Eastern boundaries

Nowhere in Iran has the role of autonomous local Amirs or Khans in shaping territorial and border arrangements been as significant as that played in eastern Iranian borderlands. Though the eastern frontiers of Iran have long been settled, there are still areas of uncertainty that need to be addressed. This is particularly true in the case of boundaries with Afghanistan where civil wars have negatively influenced Iran's border areas. The influx of about two million Afghan refugees has left its permanent mark on the demography and human geography of Iran's eastern borderlands while the traffic of illicit drugs escalated dangerously. Dr. Hafeznia of Tarbiat Modares University provided the symposium an informative account of developments in both cases of Afghan refugees and the effect of Iranian society of increased illicit drug trafficking. Dr. Mojtahed-Zadeh, chairing the session, expressed hopes in conclusion that these developments should attract attention in both capitals to the urgency of return to normalcy and re-establishment of security of border areas between the two countries. More urgent, however, is the case of Hirmand River boundary and the issue of water distribution between Afghanistan and Iran, he said. Previous agreements have failed to settle this problem but they provide the necessary background information and useful bases on which a permanent and equitable solution can be found. Furthermore, recent meeting between the presidents of the two countries seems to have resulted in new agreements on the water use of Hirmand River. No detailed information has been made available as yet, but the two neighbours seem to have decided to settle boundary issues in a technical manner away from the sentimentalities of the past.

After a brief introduction, by Dr. Abbas Maleki of Caspian Studies Centre of Tehran, to the evolution and particular aspects of Iran's boundaries with Turkmenistan, Professor M. H. Ganji was asked by the convener to conclude the symposium by summing up the proceedings. In his summation Professor Ganji declared the symposium as one of most fruitful and most successful academic gatherings of his long academic carrier. He concluded that although there are sensitive boundary issues all around Iran at present, boundary sensitivities in the maritime areas of both north and south are of urgent importance requiring urgent attention.

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