Sunday, April 01, 2007

Closing One Door - Opening Another

Locked Outside

The Iranians claim that the 15 British Naval Personnel they arrested were in Iranian territorial waters at the time.

In the last item I posted (just below this one), I suggested that their claim might be based on 1993 Iranian Legislation which lays claim to territorial waters from roughly the centre of the entry of the Shatt-al-Arab to a point 12 nautical miles to the south, plus a similarly wide band of sea to its east. This would have covered the co-ordinates which we produced.

But the Iranians have now produced a map (seen here) which does not seek to make use of their 1993 Legislation. The border they show between Iraqi and Iranian territorial waters is, in fact, very similar to the one we recognise and it is roughly at a 45% angle to the south-east from the central point of the entrance of the Shatt-al-Arab.

The Iranian's claim is that their co-ordinates show the incident to have taken place on their side of this line. They don't seem to be in the game of attempting to claim distinctive and wider territorial waters. Although there is still the possibility that in their pressurising of our personnel, maps making the 1993 claims have been shown to them.

New Opening?

On January 15, the US Military raided an office in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and arrested 6 Iranians and confiscated files and computers. From different reports one or two of those initially arrested (described as diplomats) were later released. The remainder remain in custody and their whereabouts are unknown. The Iraqi Kurdistan authorities (who otherwise get on well with the Americans) have been highly critical of the US in this case.

Iran recently suggested that those remaining in custody could be released in exchange for the 15 Royal Navy personnel. This proposal was firmly rejected by the State Department.

Perhaps a suitable third party with access to both the USA and Iran could seek to negotiate mutually agreed releases, whilst coming up with a formula to show that no-one has lost face. It is called diplomacy.

I must myself be diplomatic and thank calgacus for leading me to the above link


calgacus said...

I dont know that you were mistaken Harry. You seemed to be making sense to me - and it could be that its both about disputes over territory and about the captured Iranians - or about Iranian domestic politics too.

I was reading some stuff by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (mostly former US diplomats and intelligence officers/analysts) and they quoted the Royal Navy officer in charge of the operation in which our troops got captured as saying

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in their territorial waters. The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated.”

Craig Murray , who was previously former head of the maritime section of the British Foreign Office, also says on his weblog - and is quoted by VIPs - on the Convention on the Laws of the Sea.

He says that while in theory the boundary is 12 miles from the coast or half-way between two coats - whichever is less (if you had straight coastlines an no rocks, islands or sandbanks)in practice because of disputes over who controls small islands, sandbanks etc and the irregular shape of coastlines the only way to definitively decide where boundaries between different countries' territorial waters are is to negotiate a boundary.

He says Iran and Iraq negotiated a boundary on the Shatt Al Arab - but have never negotiated one to the south of it in the northern Persian Gulf where our sailors were taken - so the boundaries there remain disputed.

He says that on that basis the Iranians may have had the right to detain our sailors and marines briefly before asking them to leave Iranian waters - but that they should have released them.

He also suggests (as you have done) that if our government conceded it was a complicated issue about disputed waters and backed down a bit (as they seem to be beginning to hopefully) it'd be easier to get our people back.

I suspect ahmadenijad would and the Revolutionary Guards would like to trade our people for the 5 Iranians the US holds - but its possible that if he gained some prestige from getting an apology (of sorts) from the UK (whether we're morally obliged to give one or not) he might hand our people back.

He's been having trouble trying to break strikes in Iran and getting challenged over economic policy by Rafsanjani and the Expediency Council who say they're going to take over economic policy as Ahmadenijad's has failed.

He might be looking for prestige by being seen as standing up to the former colonial power to get an edge over Rafsanjani among Iranians.

Many Iranians still distrust Britain and think its more influential than it is due to our past role in the Shah's coup against Mossadeq.

calgacus said...

Just found the BBC video they got the quote from Commander Nick Lambert from - it's at about 2 minutes 50 seconds into it.

Harry Barnes said...


Thank you for your valuable comments and links. I need to repair the sound on my PC to listen to the video!

I met Craig Murray when he was No. 2 at our Embassy in Ghana. I keep an eye on his web-site, but when I attempted to log-in to his system to comment, I failed. I see him as mixed character with strengths and weaknesses. But I can always follow up matters with some of those who contacted him. There seemed to be an interesting expert at Durham University.

But it is interesting that the Iranians themselves don't seem to be stressing the 1993 Act nor the type of points which Craig Murray uses. Instead they seem to be indicating that even if we use what are internationally recognised maps , the British personel were still in Iranian Waters.

The point which Britain could concede is that because there is a historic dispute about the sea borders (although we may fully reject the relevance of the Iranian claim under the International Laws of the sea), we will act more carefully in future. So that if interventions are required at sea a Frigate will be close to hand to protect our people and that checks on smuggling (etc) will normally take place on the Iraqi side of the Shatt-al-Arab or in its approaches. To check that smuggling (which could be of arms) doesn't come up the Iranian side of the river we could operate our controls nearer ports - before Basra is even reached the whole river becomes Iraqi - so the project is easier there.

I only have snail-mail avenues to try to get this point to Beckett's Parliamentary Office. But I am up and running on the second issue I raised.

Elliott said...

You might well be right. Even more damagingly, it has been suggested today that British evidence on the position of the abductees was spun / falsified.

Either way, surely the question that ought to be exercising our political leadership is: what do we do to get our people back?

Can the post mortem not wait until they're free from Iran?

calgacus said...

The best way to get our people back is probably the way Harry suggests - admit uncertainty about the boundaries in the Gulf and say there was confusion, make some kind of muted apology. Once we have our people back we can condemn the Iranians for holding them so long - so yes we should save post mortems till later.

Craig Murray has pointed out another couple of good quotes - from a US task force commander in the Gulf in 2006 quoted in this article in Stars and Stripes magazine in October 2006 "No maritime border has been agreed upon by the two countries, Lockwood said."

It also quotes "officials" (coalition officials?) saying "“Bumping into” the Iranians can’t be helped in the northern Persian Gulf, where the lines between Iraqi and Iranian territorial water are blurred, officials said."

Harry Barnes said...


The options are -
1. Military Force.
2. Sanctions.
3. A deal.
4. Appeals.

1 and 2 can start with threats, but they mean that we have to be prepared to deliver. The reaction to 1 (and possibly 2)would probably lead to greater harm to our troops. 4 would fall on deafs ears. So that leaves 3 (at most pushed along by a careful use of 2.)

Two areas for deals (which don't have to be presented as such) are (a) commitments on the future use of the waterways by others and Iran and (b) something like the exchange of captives I have suggested. But (c) there might be something-I-know-not-what. To criticise Beckett means we have to show the tricks she is missing.