On a clear day, from the embankment of the Shatt al Arab ( lit., The Arab River) - Arvand Rud (River), to the Iranians - near the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, you can see, beyond the mid-channel island covered with yellowing tall grass, Iraqi territory. Here the Shatt al Arab is only 75 yards (70 meters) wide, about a third of its girth at its mouth in the Gulf.
In January 1989 when I last visited the site it was strewn with marks of the Iran-Iraq War which had ended five months earlier: a sand-bagged bunker dug into the embankment with a helmeted soldier clutching his machine-gun, an armored personnel carrier covered by a dirty tarpaulin, and a rusty, sand-bagged fence near a quay. Not surprising. After all, the Shatt al Arab was at the core of the eight-year-long hostilities between Tehran and Baghdad.
For the last two-fifths of its 120 mile (190 km) length, the Shatt al Arab - beginning at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers at Qurna, Iraq - forms a fluvial border between the neighboring countries. The demarcation of this placid, muddy waterway has been a most contentious issue between Iran and Iraq for many decades - with Baghdad claiming all of the Shatt al Arab, and Tehran demanding a division along its deepest mid-channel, called the thawleg line.
Competition and rivalry between Iran and Iraq date back to the era of the Ottoman Turkish empire (1517-1918) and the Persian/Iranian empire under the Safavids (1501-1722). Iraq was then the easternmost province of the Ottomans, and Iran the nucleus of the Safavid realm. Disputes between the competing empires revolved around boundaries and interference in each other's domestic affairs, conducted through ethnic and sectarian minorities across the ill-defined common frontier.
Until the first quarter of the nineteenth century the presence of migratory tribes in the border areas militated against fixed boundaries. Then tensions continued under the tutelage of European imperial powers, chiefly Britain and Tsarist Russia. Finally, from the 1920s onward the nominally independent states of Iraq and Iran maintained their historical animosity in changed circumstances, at first under the direct influence of Britain, and later - after 1958 - as truly independent countries pursing their respective national interests.
After the Safavid chief, Shah Ismail (r.1501-24), had consolidated his newly