Russia, Iran, and the Territorial Dispute with the UAE

Under President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran has carved out an overseas agenda that is a patent departure from the country’s 1979 Revolution-era notion of “neither East nor West,” reflected in a seemingly irreversible estrangement from Europe, alarming tensions with the United States, and a disproportionate investment in deepening relations with Russia and China. By increasing its distance from Europe and keeping relations with the United States in suspended animation, the hardline administration in Tehran has sent an unmistakable message of alliance to Moscow and Beijing. But even among Iran’s apparently uniform ruling class, not everyone agrees that this unilateral fidelity will benefit the Islamic Republic. What is worse, an indispensable plurality of Iranians have negative feelings about their government cozying up to Russia and China and alienating the rest of the world.

The overwhelming outpouring of displeasure at the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, which is becoming increasingly lopsided in favor of what critics say has remained one-sided partnership with Moscow and Beijing, persuaded Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to appear on state TV to try to rationalize the rather new turn in how Tehran is defining its place in the community of nations. He said in a July 18 interview with Iran’s state broadcaster that, “The people should not at all think that the Islamic Republic of Iran, with its greatness and power, wants to sell the country to Russia, China, the US, France, the UK and Germany.”

The minister’s comments came on the heels of a huge backlash following a joint statement issued by Russia and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council implicitly endorsing the United Arab Emirates’ territorial claims to three islands in the Persian Gulf currently administered by Iran amid Emirati calls for a diplomatic reassessment of their status. In the statement, released on July 10 at the conclusion of the sixth joint ministerial meeting of the strategic dialogue between the GCC and Russia, support was expressed for the UAE’s efforts to resolve the dispute over the three islands, Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, including a prospective referral to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration between Tehran and Abu Dhabi.

A Fracas over Tiny Islands

Shortly after the statement was put out, Iranians took to social media to voice their frustration at what they believed was a Russian betrayal, this time by rubber-stamping what was perceived as a thinly-veiled threat to Iran’s territorial integrity. The statement came against the historical backdrop of the Russian Empire’s having manipulated Iran’s territory through post-war treaties in the 19th century, acts that left Iranians with historical trauma and humiliation and that led to ruffled feathers regarding the UAE’s claims on what is an Iranian red line on sovereignty.

UAE authorities regularly capitalize on every forum, including the United Nations General Assembly, to challenge the Islamic Republic for its refusal to engage in negotiations over the sovereignty of the three islands, calling them Emirati soil that Iran has occupied. Although Abu Dhabi has not made the development of relations with Tehran conditional upon the resolution of the dispute, the lingering nature of the disagreement has placed the two neighbors’ ties in a state of instability, punctuated by spurts of bitterness.

Iranians believe that history leans in their country’s favor on this matter. Under the since-deposed Shah, Iran took control of the British-administered islands on November 30, 1971, two days before the UAE’s independence from Britain. As part of a quid pro quo arrangement between Tehran and London, the Imperial State of Iran withdrew its claim to the island of Bahrain and consummated its proprietorship of the three islands in question right before the UAE was formed as an independent state.

The lingering nature of the disagreement has placed the two neighbors’ ties in a state of instability.

Per the UAE narrative, the Al Qasimi tribe, an Arab dynasty that historically ruled Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, retained control of the three islands between 1872 and 1887, entitling the modern-day successor of the dynasty to sovereignty over all three. Iran denies this account, insisting that the Al Qasimi rulers had become Persian subjects before their administration of the islands, which transferred their sovereignty to Iran. Iran also argues that the emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah were not part of a state at the time, making it impossible for them to acquire territory under the principle of international law that reserves the right of sovereignty for states.

Still, the idea of the UAE’s ownership of the islands evolved into a rallying cry of Arab nations in the years that followed, and even former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein cited the liberation of the trio of islands as one of his motives for invading Iran on September 22, 1980 to start the Iran-Iraq War. Hussein apparently believed he could weaponize the spat over the islands to gain the support of the Gulf states that were the principal financiers of his war effort and to reassert himself as a charismatic pan-Arab leader.

The UAE has sought to corral additional countries, including western powers and China and Russia, into supporting its cause against Iran, and has been quite successful, at least in securing diplomatic sympathy in a simmering feud with an increasingly isolated neighbor. Now, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are in accord with the UAE standpoint on the islands and have vouched for its position on several occasions, including on the urgency of ICJ mediation.

Iran, which prides itself on having deterred Saddam Hussein’s formidable army without having ceded an inch of Iranian territory, judges the issue of the islands to be reputational, and despite its inherent diplomatic frailties has not acceded to calls for mediation or talks over their administration. This is probably one of the few domains of consensus between the establishment and the people that does not have an ideological or religious undertone.

Russian Double-Dealing?

This recent case of Russia throwing its weight behind the United Arab Emirates was interpreted by many Iranians as backstabbing by a supposedly strategic ally with which the Raisi administration has gone to great lengths to curry favor, especially during the Ukraine war. Since the early days of the war Tehran has openly sided with Moscow, a stark departure from its professed principle of opposing military interventions. And Iran has now supplied substantial numbers of suicide drones to the Kremlin, which it has used to pound civilian targets in Ukraine.

Although Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian is correct in his assertion that the Islamic Republic does not have to pick its allies from a lineup of nations that only includes Russia and China, this is not a decision it has made in practice, and its putative neutrality has been nonexistent in its diplomatic outreach efforts. After the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, Iran started a reluctant and gradual decoupling from the West under former President Hassan Rouhani. His successor Ebrahim Raisi took that decoupling to a whole new level, turning it into confrontation while tailoring a new foreign policy built on explicit pro-Russian and pro-Chinese preferences.

After the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran started a reluctant and gradual decoupling from the West.

Iranian authorities now openly brag that they do not need European states as partners and downplay the significance of European markets and commodities to Iran’s economic development. In tandem with this deliberate breakup with Europe, Iran’s visceral anti-US enmity is also stretching into its 44th year, which means that few countries are left on which the Islamic Republic can rely as security guarantors or trade partners. The country’s top leadership has opted for this isolation with full knowledge of the consequences.

The impression left among the people by Iran’s foreign policy decisions is that the country is beholden to Russia’s impulses. Russia remains the Islamic Republic’s largest military supplier; between 2000 and 2022, Iran imported a substantial amount of arms from Russia. The two countries have coordinated closely to keep Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power, as he has been faithful to both Tehran and Moscow and is seeking their patronage for the reconstruction of the country whose destruction he oversaw.

In the hypothetical scenario of a renewed diplomatic showdown over its nuclear program, Iran will need Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council to thwart western attempts to enforce new sanctions or endorse harsher action. As international sanctions strangle both Iran and Russia, the two countries will find bilateral trade not only inevitable but vital. These interlocking interests undergird what the Islamic Republic wishes to characterize as a strategic relationship.

Rising Anti-Russian Sentiment in Iran

Iranians do not concur with their leaders on the imperative of maintaining relations with Russia at the expense of a balanced, pragmatic relationship with countries across the geographical spectrum, including the United States and European powers. Irrespective of years of attempts by the Islamic Republic to paint Russia as a benign and loyal friend, suspicion toward Putin’s regime and toward Russia more broadly runs deep among Iranians. According to one poll, 50 percent of Iranians have negative sentiments about Russia, while a mere 15 percent express positive views of the country.

Reactions in the Iranian public sphere to the Russia-GCC statement were so negative that the Islamic Republic found a relatively emphatic response unavoidable, even though standing up to a powerful neighbor, ally, and as some say, patron, is now a daunting task for a vulnerable Iran. In response to the GCC statement signed by Russia, the Islamic Republic summoned the Russian ambassador in a rare display of discontent and asked Moscow to rectify its stance. Kamal Kharrazi, head of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations (an advisory arm of the supreme leader), then mimicked the Russian call for negotiations by telling the Japanese ambassador in a meeting on July 17 that Tehran supports the settlement of a disagreement between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands in the Western Pacific.

Iran summoned the Russian ambassador in a rare display of discontent and asked Moscow to rectify its stance

These gestures have not convinced the Iranian public that the government is strong enough to shield the national interest, especially when it is imperiled or feared to be compromised by a power that does not enjoy a favorable public image among the average Iranian. Despite assertions by Iran’s authorities to the contrary, most Iranians continue to harbor skepticism toward Russia for its deleterious role in partitioning large portions of the country’s territory, including what today constitutes Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia through the Treaty of Gulistan and the Treaty of Turkmenchay, in 1813 and 1828 respectively. Centuries later, the two treaties evoke a feeling of collective embarrassment among the Iranian populace.

An avalanche of disparaging comments swept Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian’s Twitter timeline, and comparisons between the current authorities and the royals of the Qajar Dynasty, notorious for their incompetence and generous concessions to the Russian Empire between 1789 and 1925, proliferated on social media. On Twitter, hundreds of posts with the hashtag “Russophile” took aim at the Raisi administration and its proponents, disparaging them for being obsequious to Russia even in the face of its excesses and while hectoring the West, knowing that some flexibility could have salvaged the nuclear deal and normalized frayed relations. From former diplomats to pro-establishment pundits, influential figures across the spectrum are grilling Raisi for his inordinate pro-Russian overtures. Conservative figures such as former Member of Parliament Ali Motahari also spoke out, writing in a tweet that, “Russia understands that Iran has been isolated because of its radical anti-western policies and it needs Russia’s support.”

Public pressure and objection to Tehran-Moscow relations may not meaningfully affect the foreign policy calculus of the Islamic Republic leadership or make them think twice about steadily expanding these relations. Even as precedent implies that Russia has not been an entirely faithful ally, including when it voted in favor of seven UN Security Council resolutions slapping grueling sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program between 2006 and 2015, the government is resolved on finalizing this marriage of convenience.

Yet with popular resistance mounting, the establishment will be cognizant that there are countless critical voices among both the disillusioned electorate and the intelligentsia whose understanding of national interest flies in the face of the official narrative. This may be an incentive for Iran’s leaders to at least try and give the impression that they are committed to balance in the country’s international relations.

The momentary fracture in Tehran-Moscow relations has been mitigated and the primary beneficiary, Iran, is not willing to let the mishap spiral into a broader crisis or a showdown embittering the other side. With few friends and allies, Tehran has forced itself to dance to Moscow’s tune. What is striking is that even in a homogenous power structure dominated by the most hardline ideologues, the emergent cracks and cacophony of voices critical of an unavailing relationship with Russia point to the unpopularity of what is being marketed as the balanced, non-aligned foreign policy of President Raisi.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Fars News/Hossein Zohrevand