Sunday, April 01, 2007

Murky Waters - The Dispute over the British sailors held by Iran is not as clear cut as Blair has suggested

Craig Murray, (who was head of the Maritime Unit of the British Foreign Office from 1989 to 1992), has pointed out that while in theory the Conventions on the Laws of the Sea fix international maritime boundaries at 12 miles from a country's coast , or else half-way between two countries' coasts (whichever is less) in practice this isn't so simple.

Due to disputed sandbanks and islands and the irregular shape of coastlines( which create disputes over what triangulation points to measure from on each coast) the only way to decide where the maritime boundaries between Iran and Iraq are would be through negotiating fixed boundaries – which have not been negotiated in the disputed waters our sailors were taken captive in.

The Royal Navy commander of the operation in which our sailors and marines were taken captive told the BBC in an interview

“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.” ( BBC video here )

Murray also points out that an article in the US military's Stars and Stripes Magazine in October last year quoted a US naval task force commander in the Persian Gulf saying “No maritime border has been agreed upon by the two countries”.

The same article says “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.”

This means all the maps and GPS co-ordinates provided by both the British and the Iranians prove nothing - because any boundary lines they mark are completely arbitrary and could easily be disputed in the absence of a carefully negotiated maritime boundary which does not exist in those waters

Ahmadenijad or the Revolutionary Guards may have planned to swap our sailors for the Iranians held by the US. The US government has ruled this out.

However Ahmadenijad may be looking to gain prestige among Iranians by being seen to stand up to Britain as the former colonial power since he’s under pressure from striking bus drivers and teachers (whose union leaders he has disgracefully jailed after sending police to beat demonstrating teachers) and from political rivals such as Rafsanjani – who has said he and the Guardian Council may take over Iran’s economic policy - which Rafsanjani says Ahamadenijad has failed on.

There is , as Murray says, no excuse for the Iranians holding our sailors as long as they have – but if our government would admit that the waters they were in were disputed and issue an apology of sorts (whether we are morally obliged to or not) we would have a better chance of getting our people back. Prestige may be enough for Ahmadenijad here.

Those who suggest sanctions or military action risk making Ahmadenijad even more popular as many Iranians still distrust the US and UK due to our governments’ role in supporting the Shah’s coup which overthrew the popular elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. The British and American governments also supported the Shah's dictatorship till its overthrow in 1979. The current Iranian government has a bad human rights record - but the Shah was even worse. There are at least some limited elements of democracy in modern Iran - and dissidents, even among the Ayatollahs, who reject the position of the 'Supreme Leader' as un-Islamic and demand more democracy. War or military strikes on Iran would weaken them and strengthen the theocratic elements. It couldn't prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons sooner or later either.

What’s more Israel, with US equipment and training and with considerable armour, artillery and air forces Hezbollah lacked , failed to defeat the Iranian backed Hezbollah and the IDF took heavy casualties in a war over Israeli soldiers taken captive by Hezbollah last year. There is no guarantee the US and UK would do better against Iran which has an air force – particularly with Shia militias and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad and across Southern Iraq behind our forces.

An SAS operation to free the hostages has been one of the wilder suggestions by the British government's critics - though not even the Conservative opposition support it. The way US special forces ended up failing in a similar attempt under President Carter should give pause for though - as should the fact that we still have staff in our embassy in Iran and lots more sailors and marines in the Gulf.

We should do a deal or apologise if necessary (whether we're in the right or the wrong is less important than our sailors' lives are) then get all our troops out of Iraq before the Bush administration or Ahmadinejad can use them as pawns again.