Interview by Kourosh Ziabari, 18 Feb 2011
Prof. Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh is a prominent Iranologist, geopolitics researcher, historian and political scientist. He teaches geopolitics at the Tarbiat Modares University of Tehran. He has been the advisor of the United Nations University and the founder and manager of the London-based Urosevic foundation. Mojtahedzadeh has published more than 20 books in Persian, English and Arabic on the geopolitics of Persian Gulf region and modern discourses in international relations. Since 2004, he has been a member of the Academy of Persian Language and Literature. Moreover, he has been a member of the British Institute of Iranian Studies since 1993. Prof. Mojtahedzadeh earned a Ph.D. in Political Geography from the University of London in 1993 and also obtained a Ph.D. in Political Geography from the University of Oxford in 1979.
He has been a member of the board of the Society for contemporary Iranian Studies at the University of London and also a senior research associate at the Geopolitics & International Boundaries Research Centre.
Prof. Mojtahedzadeh has published scores of articles regarding the historicity and veracity of Persian Gulf name and the legality of Iran’s ownership over the three Persian Gulf islands of Lesser Tunb, Greater Tunb and Abu Musa. He has delivered several international speeches in which he has scientifically repudiated the territorial claims of the United Arab Emirates government over the three Iranian islands and also confronted the psychological operation of the U.S.-backed Arab monarchies in the Middle East in distorting the historical name of the Persian Gulf.
What follows is the complete text of my exclusive interview with Prof. Mojtahedzadeh in which we discussed the scientific, historical authenticity of Persian Gulf’s name, the legality of Iran’s ownership of the three Persian Gulf islands of Lesser Tunb, Greater Tunb and Abu Musa and the futility of UAE and Bahrain’s claims over these islands.
Kourosh Ziabari: United Arab Emirates is at the forefront of cultural battle with Iran. It’s among the few nations in the world which use the forged term of “Arabian Gulf” to refer to Persian Gulf. It also cites territorial claims over the three Iranian Islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb frequently. Some scholars believe that the people and youth in the UAE suffer from an identity crisis and that’s why the rulers of this tiny country have decided to bring back honor and dignity to their people by staging a cultural propaganda against Iran and stealing the cultural heritage of Iran. Some others believe that UAE is being backed by the United States in its battle with Iran. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?
Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh: The United Arab Emirates has in deed been at the forefront of a cultural battle with Iran, which basically stems from their problem of lack of a genuine national identity and has been brought to the open in connection with their claims of sovereignty on three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, regardless of the fact that these islands formed parts of Iranian dominion in the Persian Gulf undisputedly up until the beginning of 19th century, when British colonial presence began to grow in the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, whereupon the first germs of the creation of the emirates of those shores were sawn in what was Iranian dependant tribal entities. Soon these emirates, as a result of the 19th century British strategy of de-Persianization of the Persian Gulf, emerge as Arab entities of British protection. British support for their territorial expansion encouraged their territorial claims in a political space that was Iranian to a large extent at the time, and further encouraged them in post-1971 independence to try and assume an identity which was not in any way associated with Iran or being Persian. Hence, they make more efforts than all others, to change the name of the Persian Gulf as well as laying claim to the said three islands. There are scores of documents proving that the entire region of the Persian Gulf belonged to Iran since time immemorial. Nevertheless, the British occupied these three islands in 1903 in the name of British protectorate Qawasim tribes of Sharjah, then covering the entire dominion of what is now known as UAE.
Before withdrawing its protection of Arab emirates in 1971, the British called for the formation of a federation of its protectorate emirates of the region, namely Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm-al-qowin, as well as Bahrain and Qatar, the latter two refusing to join the proposed federation for their own reasons. It was as a result of these said British plans that the United Arab Emirates was formed out of the seven emirates of Musandam Peninsula on December 2, 1971, and the new entity began to call on behalf of two of its member emirates, Sharjah and Ras-al-Khaimah for the three islands in question to be added to its territories. Since territorial claims against other states is an old, and highly effective tactic for a newly formed state to enhance its particular design of nationhood and to assume a definitive national identity, it seems the UAE has opted for territorial disputes with Iran, the only non-Arab state of the Persian Gulf in the hope of attaining its desired national unity and Arab identity. Territorial claims for nation-building purposes has precedence in the region, as Iran claimed Bahrain in 1930s in order to use the old Arab-Iranian conflicts to assist the process of nation-building that Reza Shah had started then. Similarly the Baath regime of Iraq claimed in 1950s and 1960s sovereignty over Khuzestan of Iran, calling it “Arabistan” precisely because it re-awakened historical Arab-Iranian controversy in the hope that it would enhance a pure Arabic identity for Iraq of the semi-Iranian region of Mesopotamia.
KZ: Which documents and evidences attest to the fact that Persian Gulf is a legitimate, historical and acceptable name for the body of water which separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula? Why are those who claim that the name of Persian Gulf should be changed wrong?
PM: All documents of history and geography of mankind bear evidence that the sea separating Iranian Plateau from Arabian Peninsula as the Persian Gulf. Of the maritime geography of the world the works of ancient Greeks and ancient Iranians seem to have been the earliest studies. In their varying approaches they saw the surface of the world in the form of a rectangular land mass surrounded by a world ocean from which the Greeks thought four seas: the Mediterranean, Mare Caspian, Sinus Persicus, Sinus Arabicus, brunched inward whereas the Iranians who have been the most ancient people to inhabit areas in and around the Persian Gulf spoke of two seas coming forth from the peripheral ocean; one named Parsa Draya, or the Persian Sea to the eastern half of the world, but the other unnamed in ancient literatures available to us, comprised all waters of western hemisphere connected to the Mediterranean.
It seems that the Romans, learning much from ancient Iranians through their Macedonian conquerors, adopted the Persian Parsa Darya in the form of Roman Mare Persicum or Persicum Aquarium. Yet, the original Greek version Sinus Persicus seems to have survived in Western civilizations to this day in the form of the term Persian Gulf.
During the more recent centuries, Arab and Muslim geographers adopted ancient Iranian geographical view of the world and Persian terminologies in their geographical study of the world. They simultaneously used both Greek Sinus Persicus = Persian Gulf and Persian Parsa Draya = Persian Sea in their references to the body of water now known in modern global geography as ‘Persian Gulf’. There are hundreds of ancient and historical Islamic and Arabic maps and other documents that prove this theory, which, at the same time, clarify the authenticity of the geographical use, by Arabs and other Muslims, of either of these two terms for the eastern waters of the world.
The first person to use a different name (in 1935) was Sir Charles Belgrav, British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, who wanted to emphasize the partial success of British colonial strategy of de-Persianization of the Persian Gulf. Though only a geopolitical move his suggestion the much desired precedence for Pan-Arabist policies of Iraqi Baath party in the 1950s and 1960s to follow is lead but for racist reasons.
This was because what constitutes Iraq now had been a part of the Iranian federal system known in the West as Persian Empire for centuries both before and after Islam. To the Baath party thinkers, Cyrus the Great’s conquer of Babylonia in the mid six century BC was not to be forgiven because, no matter how emphatically the holy books in Islam, Christianity and Judaism condemned Babylonian tyranny and its inhumanity, to them Babylonia was an Arab state that represented Iraq’s glorious past upon which Iraq’s new Pan-Arab identity had to be constructed.
It was on the basis of this peculiar way of reading history that a mind-boggling anti-Iranian (anti-Persian) campaign began which lasted for 35 years, a major aspect of which was changing historical names of geographical places. They endeavored to change the name of the Persian Gulf into Arabian Gulf as well as trying to change the name of Khuzestan province of southwest Iran into Arabistan in order to shed the Persian aspect of their desired Pan-Arab identity. This is precisely the reason for the United Arab Emirates to copy the Baathist style anti-Iranian (non-Arab identity in the Persian Gulf) strategy in the hope of forging a pan-Arab identity.
But the answer to your question “Why are those who claim that the name of Persian Gulf should be changed wrong” not only is in the fact that the world has, through the United Nations and its relevant commissions have affirmed validity of historical names of geographical places including the name Persian Gulf in no uncertain terms, but because of the scientific fact that geographical names have not been invented because of political, racial, or religious motives to be changed for these reasons. What kind civilized world would be, I ask all civilized people, if we were to bow specially to the racially inclined policies of Saddam Hussein and his followers in Qatar and Abu Dhabi in trying to change historical name of an important geographical place like the Persian Gulf.
KZ: Since its creation, United Arab Emirates started a psychological campaign against Iran and claimed sovereignty over the triple islands of the Persian Gulf. Are there reliable evidences available to demonstrate that these islands have been eternally Iranian and cannot be disputed by any other country?
PM: Of course there are masses of documented evidence proving the fact that the two islands of Tunb and Abu Musa Island have, since time immemorial, belonged to Iran. To introduce your readers to these documents I would recommend reference to many of my books and Articles in English, Persian, and Arabic, particularly to the following books: The Islands of Tunb and Abu Musa, published by SOAS of London University 1995 with Persian translation published by Sahab Cartography institute of Tehran and Arabic translation published in Beirut by Dar-al-Montazir; Security and Territoriality in the Persian Gulf, Curzon press, London 1999 and New York 2002, with Persian translation which is published by IPIS of the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In my years of studying the history of legal status of these islands I come across thousands of documents including original historical documents in Persian, English and Arabic, as well as original government documents from Iranian, British and local Arab governments, and diplomatic correspondence. In addition to that it is quite interesting that I have discovered nearly 30 official and semi-official maps of British authorities both in London and India that verify Iran’s undisputed ownership of these islands throughout the period 1903 t0 1971 when they were occupied by the British in the name of the Arab emirates of the time. I have introduced all these maps in my aforementioned books.
KZ: Please tell us a little bit about the historicity of Bahrain’s state as an Iranian province. Many of the countries in the Persian Gulf and Central Asian region had been once provinces of Iran. One of these countries which usually directs spates of psychological and political propaganda against Iran is Bahrain. Is it possible for Iran to claim sovereignty over Bahrain 30 years after its being separated from the country?
PM: To begin with I must stress that Bahrain is not an enemy of Iran and does not direct spates of psychological and political propaganda against Iran, unless when there are unfriendly gestures from individuals in Tehran from time to time. In normal circumstances Bahrain and Oman are two friendliest countries to Iran among the Arabs of the Persian Gulf.
The old Bahrain, which comprised Bahrain archipelago as well as Qatar Peninsula and Hassa and Qatif provinces of modern Saudi Arabia, was included in what was Persian Federative state that the Achaemenid Empire had created in about 550 BC at the same time when Mesopotamia too was included in that Persian federation. Yet, it is notable that it was said to have been the cradle of Dilmun civilization two millennia prior to the advent of the Achaemenids. Bahrain remained as a Persian Satrapy until the advent of Islam when it began to play the role of an important centre of anti-Caliphate movements. From the Safavid era in 16th century, Bahrain returned to new Iranian federative state and remained so until 1860s when British colonial officers in the Persian Gulf decided to include it in their colonial collection in southern shores of the Persian Gulf. In fact when 1861 Colonel Lewis Pelly captured the archipelago and forced Sheik Mohammad Al-Khalifah to sign his treaty of colonial protection, he wrote to Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar pleading that as he and his dominion in Bahrain were subjects of the Iranian state, he should be assisted in his resistance vis-à-vis British colonial proposals. But that Shah was too arrogant and too ignorant to understand the importance of the moment and ignored, perhaps for the fear of the British, what was happening to Bahrain. By imposing two treaties in 1861 to Sheikh Mohammad and 1868 to his brother Sheikh Ali, the British separated Bahrain from Iran.
It was in 1930s that during his endeavor for state building and nation building Reza Shah Pahlavi resorted to territorial claims on Bahrain (archipelago only), which in deed was instrumental in enhancing his desired sense of nationhood in the modern nation state )حکومت ملت پايه( of Iran that he had inaugurated. So, as you see Bahrain was not separated from Iran 30 years ago, it was separated from Iran by the British in 1861 – 1868 during the reign of Nasser ad-Din Shah Qajar in the same period that other parts of the old state in Central Asia, Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and south-east Asia were ceded and. It is important to remember that it was during the reign of Fathali Shah and Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar that all-together 14 countries, including modern Iran, came out of the belly of old Iranian federation. What happened in 1970 was that as Iranian claims to Bahrain had become a thorn on the side of the Iranian geopolitical designs in the Persian Gulf for the period after the departure of British colonial rule in the region, causing Iranian position in the changed political geography of the region more harm in the region and beyond then any good at all, the last Shah of Iran decided that to withdraw the old and exhausted claim in an orderly and face-saving manner through the good offices of the Secretary general of the United Nations. It is patently obvious that when measured against this historical and geopolitical background, any idea of return to the old claims will cause Iran even more harm in today’s world of politics than ever before.
KZ: How is it possible to preserve the heritage of Persian Gulf and derail the plots of enemies who want to bother us by trying to change the name of this strategic body of water?
PM: First of all let me make it absolutely clear that when we talk amongst ourselves we may see the issue related to the attempts in some Arab quarters in changing the name of the Persian Gulf as a plot to bother our heritage, but as these attempts are made on international level, the situation should not be seen as related to our internal problem that harms our heritage, the defense of which would attract no international sympathy. I have been advising this to the young Iranians abroad, specially in the United States, who go around this matter in a way that gives ammunition to our national enemies in the West and in Arab world using it as a tool to further their accusations that we, Iranians have a colonial view of the Persian Gulf because we see it as the sole heritage of Iran whereas it owned by all nations of the region. The issue should be seen by us in its international capacity as an affront that harms the world heritage of preserved historical names of geographical places; an affront that has been rejected by both international academic community and by the United Nations. This kind of international campaign that I myself have been involved (publishing several books and hundreds of articles in various languages as well as delivering speeches at international gatherings and writing letters of protest to political leaders and international media in the West who happens from time to time, to compromise for a handful of petro-dollars from certain Arab circles, their integrity), has proved during the past four decades to be the most productive and most successful; the best way that we can preserve the international heritage of the correct name of the Persian Gulf.
KZ: Is it possible for Iran to lodge a complaint against the United Arab Emirates in an international court and sue its statesmen for their frequent territorial claims against the Iranian islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb? In what legal framework can Iran tackle this problem and subvert the plots of UAE which wants to take over the three Iranian islands and undermine the territorial integrity of Iran?
PM: No, it is not customary to sue leaders of a country for proposing legitimate or illegitimate claims on another country’s territory. But what is customary in such contexts is first and foremost to ignore those claims. If the claims become vociferous with plenty of intrigues, as has been the case with UAE leaders activities against our national interest and our national and territorial integrity, then we have to challenge them to prove their case legally at international level. In their reaction to this challenge they bluffed their way to take us to the International Court of Justice. We replied naturally that we had no business in bringing doubt to our perfectly legitimate and legal ownership of the three islands by going to the ICJ in response to a falsely put together petition of the UAE. Later in 2004, the leaders in Abu Dhabi, supported actively by the Sheikh of Qatar, opted on physical attempt to interrupt undisputed Iranian sovereignty over these islands bay undertaking sporadic military attack on Abu Musa territorial waters, arresting a number of Iranian subjects fishermen therein, kidnapping them to Abu Dhabi and Doha, beating them up in Dubai and killing one in Doha. The Iranian foreign minister of the time decided that these acts of violence and affront to our national dignity and our territorial integrity should go without the internationally prescribe in the form of reprisal or official complaint to UN Security Council. The Sheikh of Qatar arranged later, in 2008 for the Arab League to lodge a formal complaint against Iran with the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the UAE. Not only the Iranian foreign ministry did react to this outrageous behavior, but the Foreign Minister of the time, enticed by the Sheikh of Qatar, took part in the meeting of Arab League council of foreign minister that lodge that complaint with the UNSC actively ridiculing his own office, his government’s respectability, his country’s territorial integrity, and his nation’s honor. But a legally argued petition based on strong historiography of the situation that I sent to the UN Secretary General, regardless of lack of any reaction from the Iranian foreign ministry, produced the good result of Arab League’s complaint being turned down by the UN Security Council and its literatures being wiped off the UN sites.