In complete hush, the Iranian navy’s marine force seized two strategic islands in the center of the Shatt al-Arb, the waterway the Islamic republic shares with Iraq in the first week of June.
They are Umm ar Rasas and Umm Jabani, which are linked by a narrow strip of land and lie south of Basra and opposite the Iranian town of Khorramshahr, Khuzestan. Iran’s oil town of Abadan and its international airport are situated to the south of the islands.
These islands confer three strategic advantages to their owner:
1. The ability to block Shat al Arb shipping, including oil tankers and merchant vessels from entering and exiting Basra, which is Iraq’s only outlet to the Persian Gulf, since it lost its second port to Kuwait.
2. Forward defense of Iran’s primary oil fields in Khuzestan and the town of Abadan, as well as closer surveillance access to aerial, naval and military activity in southern Iraq.
3. A base on the captured islands would enable Iran’s commercial and military shipping to sail at greater speed down the waterway.
Iran and Iraq have always squabbled over the two islands. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, the locals fled leaving only derelict structures behind them. The Iranian marines immediately set up a small camp on each island, hoisted the national flag and raised positions and lookout towers on their perimeters for a better view of the maritime traffic.
Intense high-level talks between Washington and London took place immediately after the seizures as local US and British commanders in Iraq conferred on how to respond. The British commanders were worried about the problems posed by an Iranian military presence so close to their air and sea bases around Basra.
Since southern Iraq is the province of the British command, it was decided that it was up to London to find a solution.
In the third week of June, therefore, prime minister Tony Blair used an undercover intelligence channel to get in touch with Iranian leaders. He conveyed an ultimatum: unless Iranian troops were withdrawn forthwith from the two islands, the British air force and navy would be forced to go into strike mode against them.
Friday, June 24, every last Iranian troop was gone from the two Shat al Arb islands. The British and Americans thereupon dispatched the Iraqi Border Guard’s 4th Battalion by ship to the deserted islands to move into the facilities and lookout positions the Iranians had left behind.
According to one theory put forward by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Tehran grabbed the islands in retaliation for US-British-Iraqi support for the Iranian Arab uprising in Khuzestan and to warn them off meddling in Iran’s affairs.
Another is that Iran has never given up its ambition to control all parts of the Shatt al-Arab and will keep on trying.