British Marines Captured By Iranians

by craig on March 23, 2007 9:04 pm in War and Iran?

The capture of British Marines by Iran has happened before, then on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. It will doubtless be used by those seeking to bang the war drum against Iran, though I imagine it will be fairly quickly resolved.

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. Lateral maritime boundaries from a coastal border point are intensely complicated things, especially where islands and coastal banks become a factor.

Disputes are not unusual. I was personally heavily involved in negotiating British maritime boundaries with Ireland, France and Denmark just ten years ago, and not all our own boundaries are resolved even now. 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.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent stuff as usual, Craig. I've been waiting for you to post on this issue as I knew we would be getting a proper insight into the situation and you've totally come up with the goods.

    By the way, I just finallly got round to reading your book and I must congratulate you not only on the amazing content and all that implies but also on your fine writing style!

  2. Thanks very much for the comment on the book.

    Interesting comment from Commodore Lambert, who was commanding the task force of which the captured marines were a part.

    "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".

    Nice to have my view immediately confirmed by the Royal Navy.

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