Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

This Was Mine: Disputes as Old as History

Trying to grab a piece of someone else’s land has always been a favorite trick by rulers in domestic difficulty to divert attention from their own incompetence or worse.

It is, therefore, no surprise that as international order begins to break down for lack of an authority to enforce it and with the United Nations an empty shell, old irredentist dreams return to haunt more and more nations.
This back-to-the-future through the past episode started with the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

Moscow’s argument was that South Ossetia, a Muslim-majority enclave in Georgia was, in fact, a part of Ossetia which had been annexed by Russia in the 18th century. It mattered little that Russian Ossetia had converted to Orthodox Christianity.

Having quickly seized South Ossetia and seeing little furor from the so-called international community, President Vladimir Putin decided to also annex Abkhazia, another Muslim-majority chunk of Georgia. (US President George W Bush sent a gunboat to tour the Black Sea close to Georgian waters to show the flag and return.)

Many assumed that that was the end of the newest chapter in the history of land-grabbing. How wrong they all were.

Following that we witnessed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and of Luhansk and Donetsk in 2022 at the expense of Ukraine.
Russia’s series of successes has encouraged other nations to rekindle the embers of their own old irredentist ambitions.
Argentina is beginning to beat the drums again about its claim on The Falklands
(Malvinas), South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands under British rule. Last month, Buenos Aires reminded everyone that under the 1994 Constitution, the islands belonged to Argentina.

Last August, Bolivia, also in South America, organized a military demonstration on its Atacama border with Chile to revive the claim on a chunk of territory that would connect the landlocked nation to the Pacific Ocean. The occasion, called Dia del Mar (Day of the Sea) inspired editorials arguing that if Russia could do it, why Bolivia shouldn’t succeed in “regaining its rights”.

China’s irredentist claim on the Taiwanese archipelago is too well-known to need further reminding here. A lesser-known fact is that China also claims ownership of over 100 other islands, many of them uninhabited, that are now parts of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, The Philippines, Myanmar, and Malaysia.
Even less known is Taiwan’s claim of ownership of the Senaku Islands ruled by Japan.

Japan, in turn, wants the Kuril Islands, annexed by Russia after World War II back into its imperial ownership. South Korea is also in the race with a claim on the Japanese Liancourt Rocks and Takeshima atoll.
Apart from its irredentist dispute with China, The Philippines maintains a claim on Malaysia’s North Borneo.
Russia’s irredentist claims go beyond Ukraine to include Moldova’s province of Transnistria.

Despite Brexit which has caused numerous problems for the population on the rock Spain’s claim on British-controlled Gibraltar is dormant for the moment but could be aroused at any moment especially if secessionists try more shenanigans in Catalonia.

Spain and Morocco also have claims and counterclaims over two enclaves in North Africa and the tiny island of Persil.
Also in Africa, Sudan continues to maintain its claim on the Halaib enclave controlled by neighboring Egypt.

The landlocked Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s second most populous nation, has not abandoned its claim on the Angolan enclave of Cabinda which could give it access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Further south, Comoros claims ownership of the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean while Madagascar asks France to withdraw from uninhabited islands close to the Malagasy coast.

Arguably some of the most outlandish irredentist claims come from Türkiye which talks of regaining ownership of Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq and parts of Syria inhabited by Kurds. More recently, Ankara also talks of ownership of 153 islands in the Aegean Sea currently controlled by Greece. The latest détente between Ankara and Athens has cooled things somewhat without the Turks formally dropping their claims.

Equally outlandish is Azerbaijan’s claim of sovereignty over what it calls West Azerbaijan, that is to say, what is now the Republic of Armenia.
Syria, or the shadow still left under President Bashar al-Assad’s control maintains an old claim of sovereignty over the Turkish province of al-Iskenderun (Hatay).
Then we have the old irredentist fight between India and Pakistan over Kashmir not to mention a smaller dispute over the Ran-e-Kutch enclave. India also is in dispute with Beijing over the Chinese annexation of large chunks of Ladakh and Kashmir.

The latest irredentist dispute to heat things up comes from Venezuela which claims sovereignty over the Essequibo oil-rich enclave that belongs to Guyana. President Nicolas Maduro has organized a referendum to approve annexation as Putin had done in Crimea. However, Brazil as guarantor of a treaty that ceded the enclave to British Guiana has threatened to stop annexation if necessary by force.

To be sure, a full list of all formal irredentist claims and counter-claims would be much longer than what is offered in this piece. In addition we have a great many cases of emotional and mythical-historical claims and counter-claims that cause bad blood between neighbors across the globe. After all, once upon a time, Pristina was the “holy land” of the Serbs while Bordeaux in France was an English province and California was Mexico’s gold-rich province

Sadly, there seems to be no mechanism to prevent the old demons of irredentism from causing trouble across the globe.
But could the current global leadership learn from an older chapter in the long history of land-grabbing?

In the 15th century the king of Portugal Joao II, known as “The Perfect Prince”, used the trick in reverse. With tension rising between him and the Spanish King Felipe (known as the handsome) he decided to sue for peace by offering the Spaniards ownership of a Portuguese island in the Mediterranean.

The problem was that the promised island didn’t exist. The maps and reports of resources submitted to the Spaniards were all forgeries. Nevertheless, the trick worked, the tension subsided and the Felipe the Handsome organized a magnificent triumph to mark his historic victory. By the time the rose-pot was discovered both royal cousins had headed for the other world.