Despite Tony Blair’s adamant denial that the 15 British sailors and marines captured by the Iranians were intruding in Iranian waters, Commodore Nick Lambert, who headed the naval task force, was by no means as categorical:
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters.” He said, but then—in a statement he probably now regrets– he continued : “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”.
Britain’s former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has become a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, after citing Commodore Lambert’s statement wrote, “Before people get too carried away, the following is worth bearing in mind. I write as a former Head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Iranians claimed the British soldiers had strayed into Iranian territorial waters. If they had, then the Iranians had every right to detain them for questioning.
“The difficulty is that the maritime delimitation in the North West of the Persian Gulf, between Iraq, Kuwait and Iran, has never been resolved. It is not therefore a question of just checking your GPS to see where you are. This is a perfectly legitimate dispute, in which nobody is particularly at fault….
“There is nothing outlandish about Iranian claims, and we have no right in law to be boarding Iranian or other shipping in what may well be Iranian waters.
“The UN Convention on the Law of The Sea carries a heavy presumption on the right of commercial vessels to “innocent passage”, especially through straits like Hormuz and in both territorial and international waters. You probably won’t read this elsewhere in these jingoistic times but, in international law, we are very probably in the wrong. As long as the Iranians neither mistreat our Marines nor wilfully detain them too long, they have the right.”
Murray also advises the Iranians to speedily release the captured sailors, however, the issue will be even more difficult to resolve if indeed, the capture of the Brits was connected to the on-going detention of 5 Iranians from the elite al-Quds brigade of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The London-based Arabic newspaper Al- Sharq al-Answat quoted an unnamed military source “close to” the al-Quds brigade as saying the seizure of the two-boat British patrol had been planned at a high level days in advance.
The aim, said the report, was to take captives to exchange for the senior al-Quds officers arrested by US forces in Irbil, in Northern Iraq on January 11, 2007.
According to another report an Iranian diplomat claimed he had been told that the five would be released prior to the Iranian New Year. They were not.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Iraqi authorities have also been asking for Americans to release the captured Iranians. Kurdish authorities, who condemned the arrests, claimed the al-Quds officers were operating with the approval of the local Kurdish government..
If the U.S. indeed has evidence that those al-Quds officers were engaged in nefarious activities—why don’t they present that evidence? They’ve been holding them now since January.
Problem now, of course, is to find a solution that will provide the Iranians, the Brits and the Americans a face saving way out of a confrontation that risks escalating into a much more serious crisis–a crisis that would be welcomed extremists in both Washington and Tehran.