Territorial disputes: The Persian Gulf (Part 10) [Post 170]

Iran – Iraq: The Shatt al-Arab waterway

The Shatt al-Arab River forms the boundaries between Iran and Iraq before flowing into the Persian Gulf. Due to its strategic importance for both Iraq and Iran, for centuries both countries have defended their sovereignty rights over the river. The Shatt al-Arab dispute was an important cause which led to the outbreak of the 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran.

Conflict History

The delimitation of the Shatt al-Arab River has been a point of contention between the co-riparians for centuries. Tensions due to incompatible sovereignty claims over the river escalated in the 1960s and led to a full-scale war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Recently, after centuries of dispute, bilateral strains have been normalised and the co-riparians have concluded an agreement on both the delimitation and the joint management of the Shatt al-Arab River.

Strategic importance of the Shatt al-Arab River for both Iran and Iraq

The Shatt al-Arab River is formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers in Iraq. The river constitutes the border between Iraq and Iran on the last 50 miles of the river and continues to flow down to the Persian Gulf. Being the only access point of Iraq to the Persian Gulf, the Shatt al-Arab River has a strategic importance for the country’s transportation and exports. Moreover, given the dry and humid climate in this part of the Middle East, the water from the river is crucial for agriculture. Although Iran has other accesses to the Gulf, a high quantity of crude oil produced in Iran is transported through the Shatt al-Arab River.

In addition to that, this river also symbolises a cultural line between Persians and Arabs. This boundary illustrates the many fault lines between Iran and Iraq: Shi’a vs. Sunni Government; heir of Persian Empire vs. heir of Ottoman Empire; Fundamentalist/Secular Government. 
The delimitation of the Shatt al-Arab River’s borders has been a point of contention between Ottomans and Persians for centuries and both empires have sought to control it. After the Second World War, and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the dispute shifted to an Iraq-Iran conflict.

Not only Iran – Iraq: The United Kingdom

The British government was involved in the issue ever since 1847, when the treaty of Erzerum of May 31, 1847 was negotiated and signed between representatives of Iran and Ottoman Empire as the main parties as well as the representatives of Russia and Great Britain.

Later, during demarcation of frontiers of these two countries, which was dragged on until 1913-14, the British played a crucial role. The dispute over the Waterway flowing between Iran and Iraq called “Shatt – al – Arab”, was an issue involving Iran – Iraqi relations. After the First World War as a successor state, but as until 1932 the British government had a mandate over Iraq, it was the Anglo – Iranian diplomacy which served instead.

During the negotiations between Iran and Ottoman Empire in 1845-47, British and Russian representatives, as two rival powers pursuing their own interests, participated in the negotiations, and as a party to the dispute tried to influence the outcome, that is to say, the British supported the Ottoman’s arguments and the Russian supported the Iranian side. Later on, by submitting a partial comment on the treaty provisions in favour of the Ottoman Empire, the treaty itself became a source of dispute between the two parties.

Iraq-Iran: from Water Dispute to War Link to the complete document
A Historical Review of British Role in Iran-Iraqi Dispute on the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway Link to the complete document


This post is based on Jorge Emilio Núñez, Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty. International Law and Politics (Routledge 2020).Previous published research monograph about territorial disputes and sovereignty by the author, Jorge Emilio Núñez, Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.


Iran and Kuwait.

Friday 04th December 2020

Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @DrJorge_World


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