Ratcheting Up the Tension

I haven’t weighed in yet on what’s probably the most serious story of the day—the seizing of 15 British sailors by the Iranians off the coast of Iraq:

FIFTEEN British sailors and marines arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards off the coast of Iraq may be charged with spying.

A website run by associates of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, reported last night that the Britons would be put before a court and indicted.

Referring to them as “insurgents”, the site concluded: “If it is proven that they deliberately entered Iranian territory, they will be charged with espionage. If that is proven, they can expect a very serious penalty since according to Iranian law, espionage is one of the most serious offences.”

The warning followed claims by Iranian officials that the British navy personnel had been taken to Tehran, the capital, to explain their “aggressive action” in entering Iranian waters. British officials insist the servicemen were in Iraqi waters when they were held.

The penalty for espionage in Iran is death. However, similar accusations of spying were made when eight British servicemen were detained in the same area in 2004. They were paraded blindfolded on television but did not appear in court and were freed after three nights in detention.

Ed Morissey notes that trying the British sailors for espionage would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions—in uniform, they are by definition not spies.

My initial reaction to this story was that it was a case of an over-zealous Iranian ship’s captain being exploited for domestic political consumption. I continue to think that the actions by the Iranian government are mostly for domestic political consumption but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the notion that the actions weren’t orchestrated. That’s certainly the view articulated by Walid Phares.

A little while ago I heard former UN Ambassador John Bolton being interviewed on ABC’s GMA Weekend. He observed that yesterday’s actions by the UNSC were probably about as far as the UNSC could be induced to go in putting pressure on Iran and did a little saber rattling. Frankly, I don’t think that’s particularly helpful nor necessary. We wield by far the biggest stick in the world and can afford to speak a little more softly. I also think that the recent past of lots of big talk without a great deal of follow-through has undermined our ability to make meaningful threats.

As I see it the Iranian regime needs to shoot off their mouths more than we do so we should be tolerant of a certain amount of braggadocio from them. Not infinitely tolerant but tolerant.

PJM reports that MNF forces are currently hold some 300 prisoners in Iraq connected to Iranian intelligence. That’s probably not gone unnoticed in Tehran and their truculent attitude in the case of the 15 British sailors they’ve taken prisoner is probably a sign that they’re feeling the heat.

19 comments… add one
  • But do not forget that simply capturing the British sailors was arguably an act of war. Trying them for espionage would be unequivocally an act of war. And Britain is no shrinking violet. While I doubt we’d see a repeat of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Brits would react, strongly, against the Iranians, were they to put the British sailors on trial or in any way to harm them. Frankly, I don’t think we (America) need to do anything at all about this; the Brits can take care of themselves.

    My question is, why did their parent ship not intervene, and what will become of her captain for letting his men be captured like that?

  • That’s exactly right, Jeff, and I think that, from the point of view of U. S. diplomacy, this might actually be a good thing. If the crisis doesn’t abate soon I suspect it will put some steel in the Brits’ collective spine.

    Your question is a good one. My guess is that they were just too casual.

    In my view, while I don’t think we should escalate the tensions, I think that returning the Iranians’ favors is no escalation and that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Iranian sailors were soon seeing the world.

    BTW, as distasteful as I find Glenn Greenwald, he makes a good point in suggesting that we should reserve judgment on the facts in this case.  However, I think he’s seeking an impossibly high level of certititude and, additionally, I think he makes the incorrect assumption that we’re responsible for Iran’s misbehavior.  Just because our 150,000 troops in Iraq increases Iran’s tension does not mean that the tensions wouldn’t have increased without them.

  • Hi Dave,

    I’d note that Iraqi government statements and statements from fishermen in the area tend to agree with the Iranian account that the Brit seamen had strayed into Iranian waters.

    The UK govt. has been clear that the reason Cornwall didn’t intervene is because the rules of engagement were designed to prevent a shooting war over such trivial circumstances. They worked. No shots were fired. The Commodore got it right, as far as his superiors will see it.

    WTF is “A website run by associates of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” meant to mean, and since when has such been in any way a credible reflection of Iranian policy?

    The trouble with Ed’s cite of the GC clause he does, is that strictly speaking it applies only when there is already a conflict i.e. declaration of hostilities. In peacetime. intelligence gathering while in uniform is not designated as illegal under international law, but every nation has its own laws against it.

    The US statute, for instance, is 18 United States Code 792-798. It makes no distinction between foreign national or citizen, nor does it distinguish between uniformed or non-uniformed persons. The maximum penalty is death.

    The last sentence of your comment above seems to deny probable causation: lighting a fuse in the gunpowder store won’t necessarily set of the gunpowder, but if the gunpowder blows up that’s going to be the probable cause.

    Regards, C

  • There appear to be conflicting reports, Cernig. For example, Reuters reports eyewitness testimony that the British ship was in Iraqi waters.

    The last sentence of my previous comment certainly wasn’t intended the way you’ve construed it. My intent was to note that Iran has an agenda of its own. I absolutely do not believe that the Iranians are solely responding to U. S. provocations.

    If I haven’t made it clear, I believe that the U. S. should, basically, shut up on this subject right now, the Brits and the Iranians should handle the matter between them, I hope and trust it will be resolved without violence, I think the entire incident is largely for domestic Iranian consumption.

    BTW there has been a formal declaration of hostilities (by the Iranians) but I don’t take that particularly seriously.

  • I agree the US should do nothing about this matter. It is a matter between the UK and Islamic Iran.

    Normally, a modern nation would merely warn off a foreign military vessel that may have strayed into its territory. Iran is clearly not a modern nor a civilised nation. With a different government, Iran could become as modern as Turkey, although not as modern as South Africa.

    Of course, the UK went to war with Argentina over less provocation than this. The Falkland affair could have been easily settled diplomatically, with the UK settlers protected, albeit with the loss to the UK of a distant and irrelevant possession.

  • Dave, do you have a link for that formal declaration?

    Oh, and did you notice that the only actual source for the claim that Iran intends to hold these seamen as hostages is the same writer at Asharq Alaswat who claimed that Iranian general had defected with his whole family (which the family turned up to deny!)? You know, the one with the ties to the Shah’s son and Ken Timmerman’s regime change group.

    And of course Iran has it’s own agenda. If China invaded Mexico wouldn’t the US have its own agenda? Whether the agenda Iran actually has is the same as the one being ascribed to it by US hawks is an entirely different ball of wax.

    Al fin, Argentina invaded an entire island group of British citizens. How you can call that “less provocation” is beyond me.

    What is certain, however, is that Thatcher knew it was in the wind – having been warned by US intelligence signal intercepts – and could have forestalled the invasion by a pre-emptive reinforcement. She decided instead to have a war which her political advisors told her would result in a landslide at the next election if won.

    (Oddly, Karl Rove has admitted in the past that he based the entire Bush presidency on Thatcher’s time in office.)

    Also, maybe you should read up on some of the geopolitics of the region. The oil reserves and fish stocks alone serve to make the Falklands very relevant.

    Regards, C

  • Again, I mean something different. Iran would be pursuing its own objectives if the United States didn’t have a military presence in Iraq, in the region, if the U. S. didn’t exist at all. Is the U. S. military presence relevant to Iran’s actions? Of course. But not dispositive.

  • First of all, Ed Morrisey is wrong about the applicability of the GC. The UK and Iran are not in an armed conflict. Taking the 15 Brits may “constitute and act of war” but until it is, in fact, declared so by the Brits or Iran the GC does not apply.

    Secondly, there are long-standing territorial water (TTW) disputes in the northern Gulf, particularly around the Shatt. Even the Shatt itself has been under dispute, but it is now agreed by both Iran and Iraq that the border runs in the middle of the waterway and that all shipping traffic may pass without tariffs or harassment.

    But this incident did not take place in the Shatt, but in the norther Persian Gulf. It’s entirely possible, and in fact likely, that the specific location the Brits were taken in is a disputed area that both Iran and Iraq (and possibly Kuwait) claim as their own. The Brit “admission” they were in Iran’s waters could simply be the Brits saying, yes, we were at these coordinates, and then the Iranians, since they claim those waters, spinning it into a “confession.”

    Another possibility stems from Iran’s use of straight baseline measurements to determine it’s TTW’s and not the recognized standard baseline measurement from the mean low-water mark. The US and UK and most other countries do not recognize Iran’s straight baseline claims. It’s possible the Brits were in one of the straight baseline areas, though in my experience during the 1990’s, our ships only entered them to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations to deligitimize the Iranian claims. As a side note, with certain exceptions, innocent passage of all ships, civilian and military, is allowed in a nation’s TTW.

    All the data I’ve seen, including the conflicting “eyewitness” reports, indicate the Brits were taken in a disputed area.

    Now, why did the Cornwall not intervene? First of all, a British ship would not be allowed to fire on an Iranian military or any other vessel without authorization from a much higher authority unless it had been fired on first. Even if such authorization was asked for, it’s doubtful it would have been given, and even if it had, it would likely have arrived too late. Secondly, there are limitations imposed by the ship’s weapon systems and the ROE. Firing at the Iranian boats would likely put civilian vessels and/or the Brits themselves in mortal danger. The only opportunity to engage the Iranian vessels was during their approach to the Brits. At that point, their intent was not clear and therefore firing on them would be impossible. Once they reached the Brits and their intent became clear, they could not be engaged without hitting their own personnel.

    Finally, it’s important to note something the news reports do not. The IRGC serves many purposes in Iran. It is an internal security force to protect the regime; it’s a conventional military force (and unconventional too as it controls the country’s chemical munitions and it’s ballistic missiles); but it’s also is a border security force and is, in some respects, similar to the Coast Guard along its coastline and waterways. In other words, the IRGC has it’s hands in a lot of pockets, but one of those is a legitimate coastal protection role. Even so, I think it’s highly unlikely this wasn’t an intended operation designed to take hostages, for lack of a better term.

  • Andy, thanks for the valuable contribution.

  • Nice comment Andy. Thanks for all of it.

    Dave, I’ve a new post up on this subject if you’d like to take a look.

    Regards, C

  • I spent too much of time time on a ship in the Gulf in the 1990’s attempting to enforce the sanctions against Iraq, so I do have some experience in the area. The area around the Shatt-al Arab is particularly complex, not only because it’s a river delta, and therefore the “land” there frequently changes, but also because of the numerous islands and the oil and gas fields that each country (Kuwait, Iran and Iraq) would like to exclusively exploit.

    Iraq is particularly vulnerable as 80% of it’s oil is exported from two oil terminals – one of which is only 1 mile from Iranian waters. Mike Yon’s website has a post on the terminals that’s pretty interesting an he discusses an attempted suicide attack against them a couple of years ago:


    The Royal Navy has a website on CTF 158 (Combined Task Force), which HMS Cornwall is the main unit. The website includes a graphic showing the narrow swath of Iraqi TTW.


  • The AP via the J. Post has some history which is mostly correct. The major mistake this article makes is that it talks mostly about the Shatt, but the Cornwall was not in the Shatt.:


  • PD Shaw Link

    Thank you for your informative comments Andy.

    I’ve got one itch though. I think the Geneva conventions might well apply here since they do not merely apply to declared wars, but armed conflicts.

    From the Red Cross commentaries on Article 2:

    “It remains to ascertain what is meant by “armed conflict”. The substitution of this much more general expression for the word “war” was deliberate. It is possible to argue almost endlessly about the legal definition of “war”. A State which uses arms to commit a hostile act against another State can always maintain that it is not making war, but merely engaging in a police action, or acting in legitimate self-defence. The expression “armed conflict” makes such arguments less easy. Any difference arising between two States and leading to the intervention of members of the armed forces (8) is an armed conflict within the meaning of Article 2 , even if one of the Parties denies the existence of a state of war. It makes no difference how long the conflict lasts, how much slaughter takes place, or how numerous are the participating forces; it suffices for the armed forces of one Power to have captured adversaries falling within the scope of Article 4 . Even if there has been no fighting, the fact that persons covered by the Convention are detained is sufficient for its application. The number of persons captured in such circumstances is, of course, immaterial.”

    “The Convention provides only for the case of one of the Parties denying the existence of a state of war. What would the position be, it may be wondered, if both the Parties to an armed conflict were to deny the existence of a state of war? Even in that event it would not appear that they could, by tacit agreement, prevent the Conventions from applying. It must not be forgotten that the Conventions have been drawn up first and foremost to protect individuals, and not to serve State interests. Even if the existence of a state of war is disputed, Article 3 can be applied.”


    Yeah, that last paragraph suggests that the answer is not necessarily certain, but I don’t think Morrissey is out and out wrong either.

  • Interesting info there PD.

    From a strictly US military perspective, those soldiers would not be considered prisoners of war. Prisoner of war status for an American service person carries with it legal obligations inherent in the code of conduct ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_United_States_Military_Code_of_Conduct ) notably the requirement to attempt to escape and give no information, etc. Such activities, particularly escape attempts, would be illegal if the service people are not, in fact, legally prisoners of war. If a person does not have legal POW status then they are subject to the host nations local laws – following the Code of Conduct would likely break those laws.

    Take the EP-3 downing for example. Those Navy personnel were not considered POW’s, but detainees, despite the fact they were on a military mission and a Chinese aircraft downed them, though accidentally.

    Based on my training, if I were one of those Brits, I would not consider myself a POW, but a detainee, similar to the Navy crew from the EP-3. Other nations may have a different perspective that is equally valid.

    It’s important to note that POW status carries political connotations as well. If one party or the other insisted they be treated in accordance with the GC, then that is an admission that a state of armed conflict exists between the two countries.

  • Over at HotAir.com, AP received a letter from a Navy Lt. I’ll repost it here as it’s pertinent:

    I don’t think it was widely reported, but the last time The ‘Wood was in the NAG (North Arabian Gulf) (from roughly Oct ‘04 until Jan ‘05) the Brits had a standoff with the Iranians. It was early December ‘04 if i remember correctly when for a reason we could never ascertain, something like 5 or 6 merchant vessels ran aground trying to enter the Shat’ al Arab, which is roughly the dividing line between Iranian and Iraqi waters (depending upon who you ask, as you might imagine). A British Boarding Team boarded one of the aground vessels to try to figure out why so many vessels ran aground at the same time. While in the merchant vessel, small boats from the Iranian Republican Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) surrounded the vessel and the British small boat standing by. The picture I believe is classified, but you can imagine the reaction of the guys in the RHIB when there were two IRGCN RHIBs within 20 feet, pointing AK-47’s and an RPG at them. Needless to say the RHIB backed off and returned to the ship. The Boarding Team hunkered down and the diplomacy started. It ended with the Boarding Team getting lifted off the merchant via helicopter, a needlessly dangerous operation, because the Iranians gave them permission to do so by air but only until sunset. After that all bets would be off.

    The reason the IRGCN claimed they had the right to act? The Brits had “entered Iranian Territorial Waters.” The line that separates the territories there is under about as much disagreement as the border between Pakistan and India.

    The IRGCN is extremely active in this area as well. The Iranian Navy (IRN) is very professional and works with us in a polite if cold manner. The IRGCN are erratic and seemingly looking for a fight. They are a little strange in the operational tactics as well. For instance, they set-up a little base on the top of a sunken crane. The crane part was sticking up probably 50-100 feet (I don’t know for sure, we never got within a mile of it) and they would keep it manned at all times, and their little small boat terror crews would overnight there by tying up to the crane and climbing up to their little shack they had built. I also DO mean TERROR CREWS because nightly we would hear fishermen begging for help over the civilian radio as they were attacked in what can only be viewed as state sponsored piracy, usually in Iraqi waters. Lots of stuff from that time still piss me off.

    Another key note in all of this. The reason we are up there, so close to the line, is to train the Iraqi Navy, and to protect the Al Basra Oil Terminal (ABOT) and the Khwar al Amaya Oil Terminal (KAAOT). These two terminals (KAAOT is likely still inoperable) represent the only effective means of exporting Iraqi oil, as they have no deep water ports for the super tankers. Our estimates were 60-70% of the Iraqi economy balanced on the availability of these terminals.

Leave a Comment