Captured Marines (Again) 11

My two earlier posts have caused quite a stir, so here are some further observations.

Sadly, but perhaps predictably, both the British and Iranian governments are now acting like idiots.

Tony Blair has let it be known that he is “utterly confident” that the British personnel were in Iraqi waters. He has of course never been known for his expertise in the Law of the Sea. But let us contrast this political certainty with the actual knowledge of the Royal Navy Commander of the operation on which the captives were taken.

Before the spin doctors could get to him, Commodore Lambert said:

“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”.

That is precisely right. The boundary between Iran and Iraq in the northern Persian Gulf has never been fixed. (Within the Shatt-al-Arab itself a line was fixed, but was to be updated every ten years because the waterway shifts, according to the treaty. As it has not been updated in over twenty years, whether it is still valid is a moot point. But it appears this incident occurred well south of the Shatt anyway.) This is a perfectly legitimate dispute. The existence of this dispute will clearly be indicated on HMS Cornwall’s charts, which are in front of Commodore Lambert, but not of Mr Blair.

Until a boundary is agreed, you could only be certain that the personnel were in Iraqi territorial waters if they were within twelve miles of the coast and, at the same time, more than twelve miles from any island, spit, bar or sandbank claimed by Iran (or Kuwait).

That is very hard to judge as the British government refuse to give out the coordinates where the men were captured. If they really are utterly certain, I find that incomprehensible. Everyone knows the Gulf is teeming with British vessels and personnel, so the position of units a few days ago can hardly be valuable intelligence.

Until a boundary is set, it is not easy to posit where it should be. It has to be done by negotiation or arbitration. I have participated in these negotiations, for example on the boundary between the Channel Islands and France.

With a dead straight coastline with no islands, and a dead straight border between two countries hitting the coast at a right angle, you could have a straight maritime border between the two running out from the coast at a right angle. This never happens.

In practice, you agree a series of triangulation points on both coastlines and do a geometric triangulation exercise to find a line running out from the coast. Coasts of course can be very odd shapes. Draw an imaginary coast and border on a bit of paper and try it yourself. You will soon see why the rules permit you to take into account the general trend of the coastline, and even the angle of the land border. Those are not problems of geometry but old fashioned horse trading.

First, of course, both sides will argue about which triangulation points on the coast to accept. You are allowed, for example, to draw a line across a bay entrance and use that as the coast, but there is plenty of room for the other side to argue over where that line is drawn.

That is only the start. For territorial seas (but not the 200 mile exclusive economic zone) uninhabited rocks and sandbanks count. Again huge room for argument here – the ownership of a useless sandbank is not necessarily a settled thing. Sticking your triangulation point on a sandbank twelve miles out can make a huge difference.

Then it really gets complex. What if the sandbank only appears at low tide? What if it is dry all day, but only at certain times of the year? What if it is prone to move about a bit?

You haggle like mad over this. “You can’t have that sandbank unless we have this one plus this spit.” You also then get into weighting. “That bit of land is only around half the time, so we’ll give it one third weighting” – in other words we will allow 33.3% more sea than you would get if it didn’t exist and we just used a point on the coast.

Massive volumes have been written on the prinicples behind these negotiations, but they tend to ignore the fact that ultimately it has to come down to political negotiating skills between a vast range of justifiable possible agreements. That is why we just can’t know where the boundary is between Iran and Iraq in this area, which has enough sandbanks to keep me happy thinking about it for centuries. If either side needs a negotiator…

Anyway, the UK was plainly wrong to be ultra provocative in disputed waters. They would be allowed to enter Iranian territorial seas in hot pursuit of terrorists, pirates or slavers, but not to carry out other military operations.

The Iranians had a right to detain the men if they were in seas legitimately claimed as territorial by Iran. Indeed, it is arguable that if a government makes a claim of sovereignty it rather has to enforce it, possession being nine parts of international law. But now the Iranian government is being very foolish, and itself acting illegally, by not releasing the men having made its point.

The story leaked by Russian intelligence claiming knowledge of US plans to attack Iran on 6 April has had great publicity in Iran, if very little here. Personally I doubt it is true. But it seems to me a definite risk that the Iranians will decide to keep the marines against that contingency.

That would be very unfortunate. The Iranian government, by continuing to hold the British personnel, are foolishly providing new impetus to Bush and Blair, whose attempts to bang the war drum against Iran have so far met profound public scepticism. We don’t need any more oil wars.

If Blair actually sought the release of our people, rather than anti-Iranian propaganda, he would stop making stupid macho noises and give an assurance that we intend to resolve not only this problem but all disagreements with Iran by peaceful means, and give specific reassurance that no attack is imminent.

But if the Iranian government wait for Blair to behave well, the marines will rot for ever. They should let the men (and woman) go now, with lots of signs of friendship, thus further wrongfooting Bush and Blair.

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11 thoughts on “Captured Marines (Again)

  • Richard II

    Either holding these marines justifies declaring war on Iran and killing hundreds of thousands of people and potentially throwing the Middle East into unmanageable chaos and conflict, or it doesn't.

    The fact that Blair can get away with this crap shows the level of corruption and professional misconduct within the government, the Labour Party, the Houses of Parliament, the "mainstream" media, and the various groups of political commentators.

    I love the way the BBC posts up stories about the families of the marines, how distressed they feel, what a terrible time this is for them, etc., etc. The BBC really rubbing in what a terrible thing the Iranians have done.

    Yet, when it comes to Arabs, we butcher them and then we say to hell with them.

    As in the case of an Iraqi boy who had both his arms blown off and his family killed by a missile. He was used by the media, and by the BBC, as an example of how kind us Westerners are – as we rushed to help him, to tend to his injuries.

    The BBC couldn't resist this title:

    "Limbless Iraqi Boy OFFERED HELP"

    Buried in that article is the fact that the boy said he'd kill himself if he had to live without arms.

    No re-assessment of our actions in Iraq, no pause for thought, no analysis, no comment or policy changes from Blair – the butchering and shoddy journalism continued as usual.

    The implicit message from the BBC was: [shrug of shoulders] that's war!

    Except it isn't war when our own people are captured or injured – it's then UNACCEPTABLE!

    What's unacceptable, however, is using shattered Arab lives – and in particular, the shattered lives of Arab children – to make ourselves feel good.

  • Cyrus Safdari

    I must quibble with your statement regarding "hot pursuit" under international law, as you seem to have reversed it:

    Hot pursuit allows a coastal state to send its forces into international waters to capture criminals – it does not allow one state to send its forces into the national waters of another state to capture anyone. Thus, hypothetically, UK forces could NOT enter Iranian waters to chase down "slavers or pirates."

    In other words, the Iranians could legally pursue criminal from their waters and capture them in international waters. It does not allow the UK to enter into Iranian waters.

    I refer you to "International Law" 3rd Ed. by M.N. Shaw:

    " The right of hot pursuit of a foreign ship is a principle designed to ensure that a vessel which has infringed the rules of a coastal state cannot escape by fleeing into the high seas. In reality, it means that in certain defined circumstances, a coastal state may extend its jurisdiction onto the high seas in order to pursue and seize a ship which is suspected of infringing its laws…The right of hot pursuit ceases as soon as the ship pursued has entered the territorial waters of its own or a third state."

  • Richard II

    I think the point is, if Iran had captured the marines while in pursuit of wrongdoers, then Iran's conduct would be less acceptable; they should have released the marines by now.

    It seems somewhat academic to discuss "the finer points" of international law when Britain and the U.S. ignore it.

    Bush doesn't listen to international law. Blair doesn't listen to international law. So why should the Iranians or anyone else listen to international law?

    I'd toss "International Law" 3rd Ed. by M. N. Shaw on the fire, if I were you. It's clearly outdated!

  • Cyrus Safdari

    My comment re: hot pursuit was merely a quibble and incidental to the substance of the post. I'm sorry to have raised it but this "reverse hot pursuit" concept is a pet peeve of mine and has no real bearing on the matter at issue. Some of us still have a bit of respect for international law, perhaps due to a sense of nostalgia…

  • George of the Jungle

    You know, the whole point of this pointless and criminal behaviour by that moron Blair is him following the path as the lapdog of that more idiotic and pathological liar and war criminal, Bush.

    Listen… the Iranians look at the world and how the US is invading Middle East countries illegally, and making invasions falsely justified by lies and more lies. And Blair just follows the US down the same path.

    The Iranians look at the war crimes being committed by Bush and Blair in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they know that if they don't get a big stick to wave soon then they will be subjugated to more US criminal world dominance activities.

    Do you blame the Iran State for wanting some protection from a pair of pathological insane war criminals like Bush and Blair?

    In the end, after all the false political rhetoric, Bush and Blair want the Middle East badly for two reasons only… and it's nothing to do with pablum talk about "spreading democracy". No: firstly, they want the oil, they want the oil cheap, they want to control the vast oil resources of those countries: and secondly, they want to control the underbelly of the cow that is Russia… because they believe that the vast resources in Russia should be owned and controlled by them – so-called representatives of the civilised West! Ha! – not uncultured Russian peasants.

    This is what they want and and this is what they believe. And they will grab any false pretext to forward their aims, and come up with any lies and criminal acts to enable their aims. Bush and Blair, among all world politicians who are a bunch of useles liars, are the worst liars the world has seen in mant decades.

    May they both die painfully and horribly, and may they both burn in Hell for ever. That's all they deserve for treating the world with such contempt and lies.

  • barrylando

    found your comments very interesting and have expanded on them in my own blog and on others i contribute to..would like to contact you directly via email if you'd let me have the address..thanks barry lando

  • writeon

    Maybe I'm a cynic, but experience has taught me that when dealing with Blair, scepticism is the best policy. Futhermore, one should regard any of his statements as being the exact opposite of the truth until they are proven otherwise by independent sources.

    I think this whole thing is a "sophisticated" provocation wrapped in mountain of sentimental propaganda, designed to soften us up for war. I hope I'm wrong and that I've misjudged Blair on this matter, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it!

  • Hellenist

    The Iranian government should release our 15 servicemen and woman immediately.

    Craig should think of the distressed families of these brave servicemen.

    Personally I find his weblog entries predictably anti-government; the same government he represented as a diplomat.

  • Craig


    I don't know what is wrong with your reading skills. I have been saying all along that the Iranians should let them go. I don't think that the government's bellicose attitude is helping to achieve that – or indeed is high on the government's priority list.

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