MoD: seized personnel were in Iraqi waters
Here's the proof
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released evidence backing up its assertion that the 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines recently seized by Iranian forces were in Iraqi waters at the time.
The naval personnel, a boarding party from HMS Cornwall, had just completed a routine inspection of a merchant ship anchored off the Shatt al' Arab waterway when they were captured last Friday. The dividing line between Iraqi and Iranian territory runs down the centre of the Shatt al' Arab and thence offshore until the international High Seas are reached.
Iran claims that the boarding party were on the Iranian side of the line when they were seized. If this were true, the Royal Navy would indisputably have violated international law by conducting military operations within another nation's territorial sea without permission.
Map showing the position of HMS Cornwall, the merchant vessel and the two positions reported by the Iranian government
On the other hand, Coalition forces can operate in Iraqi territory with the full approval of the UN and the Iraqi government. If the UK's version of the affair is correct, it is the Iranians who have transgressed, effectively invading Iraq and committing piracy. Of course, the UK has only lately invaded Iraq itself, so it doesn't want to get into that kind of debate. The British government will be quite happy here if they can get their servicemen back unharmed – there isn't even any suggestion that the Iranians might admit they have done wrong, let alone that there might be punishment.
The centrepiece of the MoD evidence for now is a pic of a handheld GPS in a helicopter above the merchant ship where the incident took place, said to be still at anchor in the same location. Using Google to plot the GPS readout on a satellite photo (here) certainly seems to bear out the MoD's charted positions.
The MoD also claims that one of the boats was data-linking its GPS track back to the Cornwall throughout, and that Cornwall was monitoring on radar. Furthermore, it seems that the master of the anchored merchantman (which was Indian-flagged) corroborates both the Royal Navy's account of the incident and his ship's position.
Of course, it wouldn't be terribly hard to fake some of this, though the merchant captain would be a highly credible witness in any independent court. The fact is, though, that most people outside Iran and a good few within will have known from the start that this all took place in Iraqi territory (Coalition military forces do routinely violate Iranian territory, according to believeable sources. However, this is done by elite special-ops personnel, not boarding parties from frigates. The Iranians do the same thing in Lebanon and probably Iraq).
The UK probably isn't releasing this info for the benefit of world opinion, however; the idea is to give ammunition to those factions in the Iranian state who are pushing for the servicemen's release. With recent reports suggesting that some in Iran want a show trial of the captured sailors and marines, the UK is anxious to make such an option unattractive. A trial might play well to some audiences, but in the wake of today's revelations it could make the Iranian government look fairly foolish internationally.
That the Iranians were able to seize the sailors and marines in the first place might be seen as something of a lapse. The boarding party were carrying loaded weapons, but they were travelling in fairly ordinary rigid inflatables. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards – usually known as the Pasdaran – brought in heavily armed gunboats as the Britons departed from the merchant vessel. If the boarding party had attempted to resist capture, they would surely have been annihilated by superior Pasdaran firepower.
Of course, HMS Cornwall could have sunk the Iranian vessels before, during, or after the events alongside the anchored merchantman. The British warship mounts a 4.5-inch gun turret and Harpoon ship-killers. She could easily blast gunboat-class opponents to wreckage from beyond the horizon. In fact, her helicopter could do so on its own using Sea Skua missiles. But before the Pasdaran arrived, there would have been no adequate justification for vapourising them; and after, any use of serious firepower would have killed the British boarding party and probably innocent merchant seamen as well. It's easy to see why the Cornwall's captain held his fire, quite apart from the fact that nobody wants a war with Iran just now.
It's less easy to see why the Coalition command had lightly-armed boarding parties operating close to Iranian waters and distant from their ship. This is especially so given that the Iranians have already tried this caper once – successfully, from their point of view – and were known to be smarting after US forces in Iraq recently seized Iranians whom the Americans claimed were members of the Pasdaran's undercover al-Qods force.
Still, it's always easy to be clever with hindsight. Coalition naval forces have been operating in the Shatt al' Arab without trouble for a while now, carrying out boardings as a routine matter. The Royal Navy, indeed, has been doing board-and-search against the smuggling trade into Iraq ever since 1991. This is the first time they've had any serious trouble.
In many ways Iran doesn't seem to have a whole lot to gain here. This move by the Pasdaran isn't going to draw in the investment that the Iranian oil and gas fields deperately need; it isn't going to ease the largely-unseen but very damaging financial stranglehold the US is putting on the Iranian economy. Anybody who would see it as evidence of Iranian military puissance is probably a friend of Iran already.
But this action wasn't necessarily initiated by the Iranian government as a whole. The Pasdaran don't always ask permission for this kind of thing. The operation may have been planned well in advance – Admiral Sir Alan West, former head of the Royal Navy, thinks so. However, the MoD says that when the Iranians were asked just where they had seized the Navy people, the first answer they gave was actually in Iraqi waters. It was only when this was pointed out to them that they offered another position on their own side of the line.
This does suggest that planning and coordination may not have been exactly immaculate, and that the whole caper may have been a bit of a bright idea on the part of the Pasdaran. It should be noted that the Pasdaran have long been reportedly heavily involved in profit-motive smuggling into Iraq, and they might want to back off Coalition coastal patrols for no other reason than protection of their own revenues.
All in all, it may not just be the British government that's pushing for an early release of the imprisoned marines and sailors. There may be quite a lot of Iranians on their side as well. ®