Were the snatched Brit sailors in 'disputed waters'?
Renewed Iran matelot-napping brouhaha dissected
Analysis Last week, the Times obtained an MoD document relating to the Iran sailors seizure fracas last year. It was heavily redacted, but there was a paragraph left which referred to the well-known fact that part of the maritime boundary between Iraqi and Iranian waters has never been agreed by Iran.
The Times ran this under the headline "Report reveals Iran seized British sailors in disputed waters". This was widely picked up by other media, who went further - for instance the Guardian, under the headline "Bordering on Deceit" with a strap: "Last year we were told that British naval officers were indisputably in Iraqi waters. If only we had been more sceptical".
Actually, a lot of people were at the time, pointing out that the last time Iran agreed to a border with Iraq was in 1975 - and that border ran only to the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway which divides the two countries. How, these people asked, could there be an agreed border out at sea when the Iranians had never signed up to one? How, in other words, could the UK Ministry of Defence be so positive that its people hadn't infringed on Iranian territory?
The MoD didn't help itself much on this, issuing a heavily simplifed map:
MoD's map of events.
This, which shows the coastline in ordinary landlubber map style at the high-water mark, has a Territorial Waters (TTW) line clearly drawn on. But, as the Times' MoD document said:
The last agreed demarcation (1975 Algiers Accord) delineated TTW along the Shatt al Arab only. At no juncture have TTW been settled beyond the mouth of this river.
For anyone who'd like to read the released document in all its redacted glory, be our guest (Word doc): we thought we'd get a copy of our own and read the whole thing before mouthing off.
So - bang to rights. The MoD (and Defence Minister Des Browne) was lying. There was and is no territorial line beyond the river mouth.
But hold on. On the Reg defence desk we're always up for a bit of MoD bashing, but in this case Her Majesty's officers and mandarins are only really guilty of failing to explain themselves properly.
The thing is that the river mouth of the Shatt al Arab is actually miles further out to sea from the high water mark, as we can see by roughly overlaying a nautical chart on the MoD's useless map:
MoD map with nautical chart overlaid.
The green areas are those which the UK Hydrographic office believes to be exposed at low tide - and it's the low-water line, not the dry-land one, which counts for doing borders up to river mouths. The negotiators back in 1975 knew this, and did in fact specify the initial portion of the line shown by the MoD. The Algiers accord takes the line to a point almost two miles northeast of the position where the MoD says the merchant ship was boarded and the Iranians seized the British personnel last year.
One does note that if the chart is correct, the merchant skipper had anchored his ship in a location where he'd be high and dry every time the tide went out. This is probably why the MoD never chose to put in the charted low water lines, not wishing to look like liars. But in fact the chart data is based only on 2002 satellite pics, not a proper survey; and even if it were better, silty estuaries like this one shift and change all the time. Unless the MoD's helicopter pic of the anchored ship is faked, there's enough water for a ship to float there now.
But the fact is that the ship was plainly on the right side of the 1975 line, which was agreed upon by Iran. To be sure, there has since been a change of regime in Iran and a long war between the two nations; but in the absence of any new negotiations, the old border looks pretty strong under international law. It was recognised after the Iran-Iraq war by Saddam, and for their part the Iranians never made claims beyond it - they just wanted Saddam to stay on his own side.
The Times' "disputed zone" lies beyond the mudbanks, where the 1975 line finishes. This is the zone referred to by the MoD, where the Coalition forces have unilaterally drawn an "Op line" out to international waters based on rules laid out in the UN Convention of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Coalition sets a further "buffer zone" on the Iraqi side of the UNCLOS line, into which Coalition forces never go.
The anchored merchant ship photographed after the
incident from HMS Cornwall's helicopter.
Iran has never formally bound itself to UNCLOS, but international law can be binding on countries even if they haven't agreed to it. But it doesn't really matter, unless one chooses to believe the Iranian Revolutionary Guards rather than the Royal Navy and the merchant-ship master as to where the seizure took place. The first position supplied by the Guards was seaward of the 1975 line, but just on the Iraqi side of where UNCLOS would put the TTW demarcation after that.
(It is still not believable, as the British boarding party would have been violating the Coalition's own buffer zone to be there. The possibility of a mistake by the Brits is negligible: both their boats were not merely equipped with GPS, but were data logging their position back to HMS Cornwall, where superior officers were monitoring the situation.)
In any case, as soon as UK diplomats pointed out that the given Iranian position would still put the Guards in the wrong under UNCLOS, they changed their minds and chose a new position, this time on their own side of the UNCLOS line - pretty much destroying their own credibility, weak to begin with.
So, in fact, the British party were grabbed in unambiguously Iraqi "waters" (strictly speaking, in legal terms, they were actually seized on land). The Times headline is wrong, and so were all the others that followed from it. Paraphrasing the Graun, perhaps we all should have been a bit more sceptical.
Was it stupid to have small teams with personal weapons only, in unarmed boats, without air support - without useful backup of any kind - under two miles from Iranian territory? Yes, it was. Was it particularly stupid to keep doing this just after a number of Revolutionary Guard operatives in Iraq had been seized by American forces? Yes it was.
Should heads roll? Absolutely. Will they? No.
Should, perhaps, the Royal Navy seriously reconsider its foolish belief that frigates and destroyers like HMS Cornwall, which by their nature can only provide this kind of feeble presence, are in any way appropriate for this type of work?
Certainly it should - though actually it is still buying such ships at outrageous, unjustifiable prices. The Royal Navy will certainly fail to learn any serious lessons from all this.
Should the boarding team, even having been placed in this idiotic position, have fought and died rather than submitted so easily?
As a former Royal Navy officer, with pride in the service, I instinctively say yes. I don't know if I'd have had the guts to start shooting if it was me there, knowing I'd almost surely die and most of my people with me, but I hope I would. Better for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines - as distinct from the UK - to go down fighting, and take as many Iranians with me as I could. I'd have particularly hoped to get the Revolutionary Guard officer who walked up and shook my hand first, before having his men bring their guns up. And I'd have hoped that my CO on the Cornwall would have missiled or shelled any Guard gunboat trying to get away after they'd finished me - though I wouldn't have been hugely sanguine about that.
As a British citizen and taxpayer, though, not actually wishing to be in an even worse diplomatic incident - or even a totally pointless shooting war - with Iran, I'm glad they didn't fight. Ultimately, they remembered that they work for us all, not for the government or the service or their own personal honour. They're better officers, more self-disciplined, than I was. And they brought all their people out of it alive. That isn't, actually, an officer's top priority - not one who hopes to win battles - but the only thing more important is doing the job. And the job in this case was not that of fighting Iran.
But, in the end, have the Guard got a leg to stand on here? Certainly not. They blatantly invaded Iraqi territory so as to kidnap some hostages for use in trades with the Americans (and rumour has it they achieved at least some of their aims). It was an illegal opportunistic raid, pure and simple.
Have the Times and the Guardian and the rest got a leg to stand on? After all, this is all technical stuff. Mere scribes can perhaps be excused for not undertanding the difference between low and high water etc.
No, they can't. Because it is all explained on this excellent webpage, and has been for a long time. This wasn't journalism, it was a politically-driven attack on the British government. ®