Deterring Iran, 1968-71

Article excerpt

The Royal Navy, Iran, and the Disputed Persian Gulf Islands

Between 1968 and 1971, Whitehall assigned the Royal Navy an unusual mission-to defend a series of disputed Persian Gulf islands while the United Kingdom was selling arms to and conducting naval exercises with Iran, the very country that threatened to invade them. The ownership of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb-three islands astride the western approaches to the Strait of Hormuz-was as controversial in the late 1960s as it is today. The current controversy has its roots in complicated historical claims and the way Great Britain defended, and ultimately negotiated a handoff of, the three islands. Today it is possible to gain a far more refined understanding of Britain's naval and diplomatic strategy for protecting and then disposing of the contested islands. Hundreds of formerly secret British military and diplomatic documents have been declassified and released on the subject since 1999. They are a rich resource for understanding the controversies associated with British naval planning to defend the islands and London's undertakings to its former charges when it finally withdrew from the Gulf in 1971.


Tehran and London had long disputed ownership of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. For over a century, Britain had engaged in "indirect rule" of the Arab states abutting the Gulf. Under treaties signed with tribal leaders, the United Kingdom would handle defense and foreign policy but leave domestic affairs to the emirs themselves. By 1970, the defense policy required a commitment of forces to defend such Gulf client states as Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States. The United Kingdom prepared contingency plans (such as HELIX, or Reinforced Theatre Plan [Gulf] No. 1) to protect such states against their neighbors-Iraq, Iran, and each other). The plans required a relatively small presence of British air, naval, and ground forces, which were based primarily in Bahrain and Sharjah (now one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates). The long-standing plans relied on timely alertment, rapid implementation, and speedy reinforcements from outside the Gulf.2

All such contingency plans became harder to implement in January 1968, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that Britain would withdraw from its defense commitments east of Suez. Its defense obligations and military presence in the Gulf were to cease by December 1971. The key players on the military side, notably the Chiefs of Staff Committee and Commander, British Forces Gulf, accordingly began planning for a "run-down" of British forces. This task was particularly challenging because Britain remained obligated to defend the Gulf client states until the withdrawal was complete, no matter how much the British overseas force structure had shrunk at any given time-and, as the table shows, the withdrawal from the Gulf was to occur rapidly.

However, the Royal Navy also relied on a naval "covering force" from the Far East. As of September 1971, an attack carrier would be able to respond to Gulf contingencies within two weeks. In November 1971, an attack carrier was scheduled to be able to respond within five days; a helicopter assault ship (LPH) could enter the Gulf within eight days.3

While in the process of withdrawing, the United Kingdom would also continue to craft foreign policy on behalf of its clients. Unfortunately, anticipating the imminent departure, Iran, ruled by Shah Reza Pahlavi, began immediately more forcefully asserting its long-standing claim to Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb. Tehran claimed legal ownership of the islands and declared a desire to ensure stability of the Gulf (and protect sea lines of communication through the Strait of Hormuz) by occupying them. In response, the United Kingdom, on behalf of the emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, asserted that all three islands were Arab territory. London explicitly backed Sharjah's claim to Abu Musa and Ras Al Khaimah's claim to the Tunbs. …