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April 04, 2007


Personally, I think the only reason it didn't spin out of control is that they were British service personnel and not American.

I think the British are far more likely to play fast and loose with international waterways, and it would not surprise me that they were in Iranian waters. One of my soldiers had been in the Navy doing interdiction work with the Brits, and he said that the Brits would chase vessels into national waters long after the american ships stopped. No evidence in this specific case, but anecdotally makes me think the Iranians did not enter Iraqi waters to sieze them, which sounds a like a degree of brinksmanship that Iran would be truly foolish to try.

Reading comments on the net I suspect that many will be angry at losing the pretense to go to war. The "have your say" page on the BBC site was frightening in that regard with a majority proposing 1 of 3 things
1. Demand the return of the sailors in x hours and nuke Iran when the ultimatum runs out.
2. Free the sailors by (preferably by force), then nuke Iran.
3. Nuke Iran immediately.
Most others assumed that the US or Britain would behaved the same way as Iran and that therefore the outrage was hypocritical.

Personally I consider it possible that both sides were right according to their maps. Interestingly I have read that the map the British presented showed a territorial borderline that was different from both those that Iraq or Iran consider valid.
I think no party in this affair is very trustworthy. Iran's behaviour is at least consistent as a harmless German fishing tourist found out 1.5 years ago. He was put in jail and released just last week for unknowingly crossing the line into Iranian waters.

I once almost crossed into Albania by mistake, a fact which I discovered by being confronted by armed Albanian soldiers who were not at all friendly. (This was back before the Iron Curtain fell; I was in what is now Kosovo.)

No fun at all.

On a lighter note, I was also denied entry into Turkish Cyprus (coming from the Greek Cypriot side). I was writing for Let's Go, and when I pulled out a copy to show them, I realized to my horror that the title was: Let's Go Greece!, and then, in smaller writing: Includes Turkey!

Not too popular with Turks.

I got caught entering Kuwait from the Iraqi side 4 months after the war in 1991. It was pretty impressive for the Kuwaitis, because they had three gun trucks surround us before we ever saw them, and had the trigger discipline not to shoot. That was a particularly stressful moment, as I was all of about 22 and with a bunch of Kuwaiti officers who the capturing force thought were Iraqis...I guess they thought I was Russian or something, as I don't blend. The Kuwaitis had a bounty on each Iraqi that was caught by rank, so the soldiers that caught us thought they were going to be rich (at the time, the Iraqis were crossing the border to retrieve equipment they had abandoned in the retreat, which was scattered all over the desert). Eventually someone recognized one of the officers, and they let us go.

Something I didn't see being noted much, but which I thought deserved appreciation: the reason the soldiers allowed themselves to be taken prisoner by the Iranians without a fight was because they had standing orders not to make things worse, and they concluded, evidently, that starting a firefight with armed Iranians in dubious territorial waters fell well inside the "Don't make things worse" part of their standing orders.

I saw a US officer proclaiming that American soldiers would have fought rather than be captured. Maybe they would: but I don't think there can be too much appreciation of the plain courage it took to surrender without fighting because their fighting back could have been the trigger incident that started WWIII.

I have a huge admiration for people who stand fast and do their duty without fuss. Those 15 soldiers did their duty, without fuss, when they surrendered. I'm very glad they're going to be freed.

jrudkis: No evidence in this specific case

There is, in fact, some evidence. The location the British reported for the sailors is on the Iranian side of a halfway line across the waterway (which is the closest thing to a border, since there is not an agreed demarcation).

Hilzoy, I hope it goes without saying, since you haven't said it, that you're just as critical of the U.S. kidnaping of five Iranian diplomats from Irbil in Iraq, who've been held incommunicado for a month now.

I think the British are far more likely to play fast and loose with international waterways, and it would not surprise me that they were in Iranian waters.

It seems pretty clear to me that this was an area with a disputed boundary, and that no one will ever be able to draw a clear-cut conclusion as if, say, they had accidentally crossed into Albania.

In any event, the world community frowns on taking soldiers hostage just because they arguably cross over a disputed boundary, let alone parading them in front of cameras, using them for propaganda purposes, etc.

People sometimes hesitate to say bad things about Iran because they're afraid of enabling the warmongers (it's a short step from "yes, of course, Saddam is a very bad man" to "whoops, now we're in the middle of a disastrous occupation of Iraq") but still, Iran doesn't show any more acceptance of international norms than they did in 1979 when they thought it was perfectly fine to hold embassy personnel hostage.

I'm hardly saying the U.S. always adheres to international norms - and indeed, leaders like Bush actually achieve political success by disdaining those norms - but still, Iran's regime has had almost 30 years to demonstrate that they're ready to be grown-up members of the world community and I'm really not impressed with what I see.

I agreed w/ what Jon Stewart said about this a few days ago:

"Hey Iran ... what are ya doing?! Do you know how hard we're working over here to keep President Bombs-A-Lot from throwing down on you guys?"

Don't know though, that this was a consideration for the Iranian authorities (the general idea, I mean, not Jon Stewart's actual statement).

Nell: yes. I disapprove of kidnappings across the board. I am willing to entertain possible exceptions for, e.g., forcibly detaining Hitler, but that doesn't seem to be at issue in either case.

"Hey Iran ... what are ya doing?! Do you know how hard we're working over here to keep President Bombs-A-Lot from throwing down on you guys?"

This whole incident is of a piece with the Holocaust denial conference and everything else; it's Ahmadinejad's way of throwing red meat to his political base. And I regret very much that the U.S.'s public posture serves to help loonies like him to come to power through demagoguery.

Glad to see it is over without incident.

The Iranians were overreacting -- we have also been goading them with massive naval maneuvers in the Gulf intended to intimidate them. Surprise -- these types of things happen (heck, our "ally" Saddam blasted the Stark by mistake back in 1987).

The whole situation looked like a mistake by either Iran or the British as to who crossed into whose waters, and then whoever goofed did not want to loose face.

It is not easy to tell who made the error. The British were in small pontoon craft away from their naval ship seeking to board an Indian flagged vessel because of suspicious activity -- had the tanker moved into Iranian waters as a defensive move? The Iranians claimed that they were 500 meters into Iranian waters -- the British claimed they were around 3000 meters on the Iraqi side. The whole episode took place several miles from the coast and involves an imaginary curving line extending from the coast -- an international boundary at sea between two nation is not a straight line but one which reflects the curving nature of coastlines on each side of the border.


It seems pretty clear to me that this was an area with a disputed boundary,...

Not really. The historically disputed boundary has to do with the areas in shore along the Shatt al Arab waterway that divides Iran and Iraq. This episode involves waters several miles off-shore. The boundary line at sea out to the 12 mile territorial limit starts at the boundary between the two at the shoreline (in this case, at the Shatt al Arab's mouth), and then extends outward in a curving line defined by those points equidistant from the coastlines of each country out 12 miles.

By definition, the boundary at sea is an elusive thing as the respective coastlines are curving lines, resulting in the equidistant point being a curving line.

Complicating matters is that the starting point is the land boundary as exposed at the astronomical low tide. The waters in the Persian Gulf at this point are so shallow that this point can be ten miles further out than the typical shoreline -- trying to draw the line is a nightmare. Most nations enter into agreements defining the territorial boundary at sea because the legal definition can be unworkable, as it is here. But Iran and Iraq have never reached a permanent agreement. In that sense it is "disputed," but mostly its just very murky as to where the boundary line is because the international boundary rules do not work well in this situation.

Here's a useful link on this (it also links articles describing the international norms for drawing this line, which can be very important when offshore oil is involved).

Gosh, what a shame that they were released before being given a chance to throw away their lives and satisfy conservative bloodlust.

Two wrongs don't make a right; the British sailors should have been released far more quickly. And they probably would have been, had the British government taken Craig Murray's advice:
Both sides have to climb down. We have to state that no agreed border exists and that we had no intention of straying into Iranian waters.

But there really is a lot of averting-of-the-eyes going on here with respect to U.S.-sponsored attacks on Iran and Iranians. Yesterday's ABC/Nightline story bears out the most recent Seymour Hersh article about covert ops teams, and there have been numerous explosions and plane downings in Iran over the last year that are very difficult to put down to coincidence.

In addition to the Iranians taken from Irbil, there is the possible kidnaping of the former deputy minister of defense who disappeared from Turkey in December. He might have been defecting, or he might not.

Planes from the Eisenhower and the Stennis have been buzzing Iranian airspace for two months.

Under these circumstances, criticism directed entirely at the Iranian government is less than what's required to prevent a cataclysm.

Sorry; the correct link to the ABC story.

It seems like Iranian diplomacy had no reliable information to work with - their man in Moscow ad libbed about legal processes, while the people in talks with the Brits offered two different sets of coordinates. This suggests to me that the incident was not initiated from the center.

As best as I can tell from LexisNexis, and I could be wrong, GB and the US went to the press first, which is very curious, as media attention obviously makes it much harder to get your people back. Admittedly they have much more developed PR resources than the Iranians, but the fact that Tehran's diplomatic and media response seems to be so ill-coordinated suggests to me that they too were reacting to a decision taken on the ground.

One of the commentors on Slacktivist:

Pelosi: "Our party's going to win the `08 elections in a landslide and enjoy control over Congress and the Oval Office. We'll have the power to quietly support you, because your government can't just depend on Iran or Russia for UN support in the long term. All you need to do is ask Ahmadinejad to drop the British soldiers. You'd get to stop a crisis from building into a war that my idiotic President would start but which would only result in you and Ahmadinejad getting killed and your countries looking like Iraq does now. Sound good?"

Assad: "I'll call him right now."

In any event, the world community frowns on taking soldiers hostage just because they arguably cross over a disputed boundary, let alone parading them in front of cameras, using them for propaganda purposes, etc.

Most of the world might agree with Terry Jones:

I share the outrage expressed in the British press over the treatment of our naval personnel accused by Iran of illegally entering their waters. It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this - allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world - have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God's sake, what's wrong with putting a bag over her head? That's what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it's hard to breathe. Then it's perfectly acceptable to take photographs of them and circulate them to the press because the captives can't be recognised and humiliated in the way these unfortunate British service people are.

It is also unacceptable that these British captives should be made to talk on television and say things that they may regret later. If the Iranians put duct tape over their mouths, like we do to our captives, they wouldn't be able to talk at all. Of course they'd probably find it even harder to breathe - especially with a bag over their head - but at least they wouldn't be humiliated.

And what's all this about allowing the captives to write letters home saying they are all right? It's time the Iranians fell into line with the rest of the civilised world: they should allow their captives the privacy of solitary confinement. That's one of the many privileges the US grants to its captives in Guantánamo Bay.

If you've got the coordinates and a decent mapping program, you can see that where they are is most decidedly NOT clearly Iranian waters. Not clearly Iraqi waters, either, despite what the British government (as well as others, possibly) might say. Possibly the maritime equivalent of the Romulan Neutral Zone is needed, here, only without the photon torpedoes.

Probably redundant, but that's practically my middle name. I think it's certainly possible that the Brits were just trying to crack down on smuggling, and it's also possible that the Iranians were being overly enthusiastic in their crackdown.

In any event, letting this sort of thing go without so much public controversy might be a good idea, from time to time.

Following Nell's ABC link is http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2418427.ece>this from the same site and http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2418427.ece>this.

This just sucks. How are we gonna get a really kick-ass war going now?

Shit. I'm gonna go and fuss with my mustache. Don't bother me. And turn down that music and get off my lawn, dammit!

The Iranians release their prisoners as a goodwill gesture, and do you think Blair could bring himself to say thanks? "We bear the Iranian people no ill will". What an arsehole.

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