Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Thalweg And Sinuosity

Complexities Of The Current Crisis

At the time of the capture of the 15 Sailors and Marines by the Iranian Forces, who exactly was where?

Even if we could precisely pinpoint the places, we might still not have fully established whether events took place in Iraqi or Iranian territory. For the laws of the sea are sometimes laws unto themselves.

1. Two Places Are More Complex Than One

H.M.S, Cornwall and the Power Boat containing our troops where in different positions at the time of the incident. As far as I am aware, we have not been told how far they were apart. It is possible that one was in Iraqi territorial waters and the other in Iran's.

2. Comparing Maps

Even if our maps showed that both the Frigate and the Power Boat where in Iraqi waters, what do the Iranian maps show?

The incident seems to have occurred near the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab river (which the Iranians call the Arvandrud). At its mouth the river is about half a mile wide - Iraq has the western section, Iran the eastern. Perhaps the capture was at a point where the river had entered the Gulf and was now going into both Iraqi and/or Iranian territorial waters. Again the two vessels could have been at different places (river or sea) as well as in different territories. The possibilities are then further complicated by whether we use an Iraqi or an Iranian map to plot positions.

There is even a crazy theoretical possibility that we were in Iranian territorial waters according to our maps, by the Iranians swooped in what was Iraqi territory according to their maps!

3. Rhine Maidens

For almost 60 miles as the crow flies (but more as the river winds) the middle of the Shatt-al-Arab forms the approximate boundary between Iraq and Iran. The exact boundary, however, is determined according to the Wagnerian sounding principle of the Thalweg - which is used for drawing national boundaries along the Danube. But I like to think of Wagner's Rhine Maidens swimming down to the Thalweg to hide their gold.

The Thalweg is where the valley of the river bed descends to and the water flows at its fastest speed. Thankfully by Basra is reached, there is Iraqi territory on both sides of the river. For the river is then only 760 feet wide for what has traditionally been Iraq's main port.

4. A Coast Or A Corridor?

A 1958 Iraqi Law defined its territorial sea as being twelve nautical miles in the "direction of the high sea, measured from the low-water mark following the sinuosities of the Iraqi Coast".

"Sinuosity" is about curved, tortuous and undulating areas - which is a good description of the Iraqi Faw Peninsula which is at the southern-most tip of Iraqi land.

Its sinuosity is seen by the fact that whilst the distance from the Kuwait border to the Iranian border is only 20 miles, the position from the southern tip of Iraq to the coast of Kuwait is some 30 miles. That's Peninsulas for you.

The details of this law may have changed in the past half-century. Not least because Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Partly because he wanted to extend the borders at the Shatt-al-Arab to the Iranian side of the river. But in the end he had to accept the Thalweg and was unable to use the river as it was full of sunken ships.

Yet the principles of the 1958 Act in relation to sinuosity and its expanding of the area of Iraqi territorial waters,remain.

Saddam next invaded Kuwait in 1990, which would have given him an extra 150 miles of coastline even without its sinuosities. But that did not work out either.

Clarity Is A Start

I hope that Blair understands all these complexities about Naval manoeuvres, different maps, thalwegs and sinuosity. But who is going to tell Bush as he plays battleships in the Gulf?

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