Fake Maritime Boundaries 58

The British Government has published a map showing the coordinates of the incident, well within an Iran/Iraq maritime border. The mainstream media and even the blogosphere has bought this hook, line and sinker.

But there are two colossal problems.

A) The Iran/Iraq maritime boundary shown on the British government map does not exist. It has been drawn up by the British Government. Only Iraq and Iran can agree their bilateral boundary, and they never have done this in the Gulf, only inside the Shatt because there it is the land border too. This published boundary is a fake with no legal force.

B) Accepting the British coordinates for the position of both HMS Cornwall and the incident, both were closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land. Go on, print out the map and measure it. Which underlines the point that the British produced border is not a reliable one.

None of which changes the fact that the Iranians, having made their point, should have handed back the captives immediately. I pray they do so before this thing spirals out of control. But by producing a fake map of the Iran/Iraq boundary, notably unfavourable to Iran, we can only harden the Iranian position.

58 thoughts on “Fake Maritime Boundaries

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  • Johan van Rooyen

    Graig, please also appreciate that if it weren't for your elucidation the fakery might never come to light until after the 45 minutes are up, so to speak. Was it on "The World at One" I just heard a Maritime Law "expert" wax on at length supporting the UK government's point of view?

    Do take care though!

  • Johan van Rooyen

    Graig, just occurred to me. The more your views become public knowledge (i.e. the general public) the safer you are likely to be. For example, I'm sure George Galloway would be more than happy to have you on his show (again) on Friday. Just a thought…

  • squid696

    A little bit of historical context, the USS Vincennes was in Iranian waters when it fired its missile that shot down an Iranian airliner. The US denied that for years before finally admitting it.

  • squid696

    For a little historical context, the USS Vincennes was in Iranian waters when it fired its missile that shot down an Iranian airliner. The US denied it for years before finally admitting it.

  • Lew Page

    "HMS Cornwall and the incident, both were closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land."

    You seem to be applying UNCLOS straight baseline rules (see UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Pt II Art 8, available at http://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements….

    However, if you apply that rule in the way you suggest to the Shatt and the Kuwaiti line to the West, you have cut off Iraq from access to the high seas, which is specifically forbidden under UNCLOS and obviously unfair to boot.

    Furthermore, if the Iranians dispute the line as drawn, why – when it was pointed out that their initial claim placed them on the wrong side of it – did they change their minds about where they had made the capture?

    I totally support your stance on Uzbekistan, and indeed so does everyone else now by the look of it. But calling this a 'fake border' is overdoing it a bit.

  • writeon

    Dear Craig,

    I wouldn't trust Tony Blair if he told me the sun rises in the East. This is rather problematic as there's a lot of independent evidence that supports this assertion, still, coming from him I be forced by experience to question his veracity and double-check!

    My problem is, I believe he's a pathelogical liar, a person who simply does not realise or recognise the difference between truth and lies, and doesn't she what all the fuss is about anyway! Words are just things one uses at a particular time and their meaning are open to a radically different interpretation on another occasion.

    In my opinion the soldiers are just bait in a trap and the Iranian's have fallen into it. Blair doesn't really care about these people. He's both a cynic and a hypocrite. In the current volatile situation with two American fleets off Iran and the threat of attack, anyone with half a brain can see that the Iranian's are going to be on a hair-trigger and are ready to defend their territorial integrety at almost any cost, anything else could be interpreted as weakness on their part.

    The mainstream british press is dire, as is usual. Just raise the flag, roll the drum and blow the trumpet and they fall into line. Historically they've always reacted in this way. Nationalism and militarism trumps common sense any time.

    What we really need at this time is moderation, rationality, calm reflection and good sense, all of which Blair lacks. I think he's only haging on to power because he's been informed about a coming attack on Iran and he wants to do his master in Washington one last valuable service before he joins the Carlyle Group.

  • Craig

    For Lew Page,

    Thank you for your quite rational comments, but I cannot agree with you.

    No, I'm not applying straight baseline rules, though I do know that in the past Iran has based its claims on them. I am not saying where the boundary should be – that is for agreement between Iran and Iraq, or if they wish for international adjudication. That agreement has never been reached and this area is subject to perfectly legitimate dispute.

    What I am saying is that the line the British government had produced has been drawn by the British government. They failed to say that and are trying to pass it off as an international boundary. So I really don't see why I should not call it fake. It is fake.

    I make the point that the incident took place closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land just to show that there are definitely genuine factors that could support an argument, in the boundary determination that is yet to happen, that this location should be in Iranian waters.

    To sum up. I am sorry, but the boundary lines produced by the British government are fake and have no legal authority whatsoever.

  • Chuck Unsworth

    That is exactly the point. There is absolutely no 'Internationally agreed' territorial demarcation in the Gulf.

    For anyone to base this dispute on such fiction is complete insanity.

    Given the unpredictability of the Iranians the Navy was pushing its luck. That's OK if you're on top of things, have sufficient resource and determination – and/or your surname is Nelson.

  • Martin Pratt

    It is true that there is no agreed maritime boundary between Iran and Iraq. However, you have missed two important points regarding the Iran-Iraq boundary:

    1) The international law of the sea require that, in the absence of agreement on a territorial sea boundary, neither side may extend its territorial sea beyond the median line between the two coasts unless historic title or other special circumstances justify doing so. I can see no such justification in this case. While Iran is not a party to either the 1958 or 1982 law of the sea conventions, the provisions in those conventions concerning the territorial sea are widely-regarded to have become customary international law, and therefore binding on Iran. So until Iran and Iraq formally agree a territorial sea boundary, the median line (more or less as depicted on the Ministry of Defence graphics) serves as a de facto boundary.

    2) The land boundary agreed between Iran and Iraq in 1975 extended to the mouth of the Shatt al Arab river at the lowest low-water line. The point at which the British government claims that the incident took place lies just under 1.7 nautical miles southwest of the agreed land boundary terminus, and it is arguable that the incident actually took place on what is technically Iraqi land territory: Britsh charts of the area show the low-water line (the normal baseline from which the territorial sea is measured) running around 100 metres south of where the British government says the incident took place.

    My feeling is that the British government slightly oversimplified the legal situation in its presentation but, assuming the coordinates given for the incident are correct, it is extremely unlikely that Iran has any legitimate claim to the point in question.

    Martin Pratt

    Director of Research

    International Boundaries Research Unit

    Durham University

  • Chuck Unsworth

    It doesn't matter to the Iranians whether they are operating within the terms of any law – International or not. That much should be obvious to anyone. Is it at all likely that any 'International' Court will have the slightest effect on Iranian thinking?

    The only way the Iranians will accede to demands for the return of these individuals is if they believe it is in their own – and immediate – best interests.

    Iranan leaders have shown themselves to be incapable of working within or even developing any long term international strategy. Their principal preoccupations are internal power structures and money in the bank. All this nonsense about Iran becoming a nuclear power is to support those objectives. At best the Iranian time horizon is two or three years.

    This exercise should be clearly understood for what it is, a naked attempt to exert influence. Never mind all the hoo-hah about 'Laws' to which Iran may or may not have been a signatory in the past. What do they mean to Tehran today?

  • Randal

    Craig, thank you very much for raising this issue in the way you have. Your discussion exemplifies the often cited benefits of the internet in holding the mainstream media to account.

    Regrettably I am not so concerned at the deception attempted by the British government as by the uncritical acceptance of it by our mainstream media. That the British government sees no problem with lying if it thinks it can get away with it is nothing new, although the Blair regime has admittedly sunk to new depths in this regard.

    What is disgraceful is the BBC's (in particular) shameless collaboration with our government. I remember the reports on the very first day in which the BBC stated as simple fact the British government's assertion that the incident occurred in Iraqi territorial waters, when the BBC self-evidently had no informational basis from which to draw any conclusion except that the teerritorial position was disputed. And then the BBC's use of the map showing a supposedly clear boundary line was another example of shameless partisanship. Just an extension of their routine bias in any reporting on the crisis caused by US and Israeli-led attempts to pressure Iran out of its legitimate development of nuclear power.

    I would also like to thnk Mr Pratt for his informed contribution above. This is the kind of technical dispute that ought to be aired fully in our media when these issues arise, in order to make people aware of the complexities that give rise to genuine disagreements over the facts of the situation.

    My working assumption at the moment is that the Iranians have taken these operatives in direct response to the US seizure of Iranian operatives in Kurdstan in (iirc) January. It seems to be a classic tit for tat operation, and illustrates what states are left with when the rule of law is ditched in favour of the exercise of raw power, as has been done by the Washington regime, with generally uncritical British government support.

  • barrylando

    Very impressed by the high quality of the comments above…had forgotten about the vincennes incident…of course during the last years of the iran-iraq war, the u.s. was operating all kinds of "black" naval operations in the Gulf against Iranian naval units as well as targets in iran itself.

    finally, surely someone must see the humor in british government objecting to Iran's showing the british prisoners on television as a violation of the Geneva Convention. Good to know

    George Bush's strongest ally takes the Convention so serioulsy.


  • Johan van Rooyen


    Showing my ignorance here but does the Geneva Convention not apply to POWs as opposed to common or garden variety prisoners? If, on the other hand, these prisoners are in fact POWs then presumably they don't have the right to benefit from consular access?

  • Craig

    Martin Pratt,

    Firstly, I note that your response accepts that this line is drawn by the British government and not by Iran or Iraq, let alone agreed by both of them.

    Secondly, I note your contention that it is "more or less" a median line. But the more or less is rather crucial here, when we are discussing an incident close to a boundary. All you can say is that the boundary drawn by the British MOD is a boundary that could be justified under the criteria of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. It would be perfectly possible to draw several other boundaries that might also be justified by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.

    Thirdly, were I an Iranian negotiator (and I don't know about you, but I have actually negotiated such boundaries) I would certainly argue, given the greater eastward projection of the Iranian coast, that the British proposed boundary line needs to shift south west. Quite simply, this is not an obvious median line.

    Finally, arguments regarding tide lines and sands become ultra complex haggling points in practice in negotiations. We cannot presume their outcome.

    In brief, it is not legitimate for the British government to draw the boundary and say it is utterly certain about it. A little more humility, and an acknowledgement that this is a boundary subject to dispute, might actually get our people home.

    The question is, are we really aiming to get our people home, or to maximise propaganda from the incident?

  • Martin Pratt

    Dear Mr Murray,

    My comments were based purely on my own understanding of the situation with regard to the land and maritime boundaries between Iran and Iraq following research and a careful construction of the median line between the two charted coastlines.

    For reasons I don't quite understand, the MoD maps only showed the high-water line along the coast – and I agree that a median line constructed between the two high-water lines would be rather different than the one depicted by the MoD. However, as I'm sure you know, it is the charted low-water line that is the baseline for the territorial sea. Due to the tidal range in the northern Gulf and the shallow profile of the intertidal area, there is a significant distance between the high- and low-water lines in this area: the agreed land boundary terminus at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab at the low-water line is some 10 nautical miles southeast of what appears to be the land boundary terminus on the MoD graphics.

    If you look at the charted coastline, you will see that the MoD has simplified the situation by labelling the inter-tidal zone as territorial sea, but it is not fundamentally wrong in its depiciton of the boundary situation. There is an agreed boundary out to a point about 1.7 nautical miles northeast of the position at which the British government claims the incident took place, and the median line between the two low-water lines seaward of this point runs east-southeastwards.

    I agree that it would be preferable to draw a distinction between the agreed land boundary and the median line through the territorial sea, which is only a potential boundary. However, as I noted in my previous post, in the absence of a boundary agreement or defined claims by the parties, under international law the median line becomes the de facto boundary.

    I hope this helps to clarify my previous post. If the geographical situation I have described is still not clear, I recommend that you consult UK Hydrographic Office charts 1235 and 3842.

  • Richard II

    Where's Tony Blair's evidence that his evidence isn't fabricated or a distortion of the truth?

    This is Tony Blair, everyone, the Butcher of Baghdad, who, if I remember correctly, told us that he had unequivocal evidence that Saddam Hussein had WMD, but couldn't divulge this evidence as it would jeopardise a source in Iraq – we would have to wait till after the invasion.

    Four years later and still no evidence is forthcoming.

    I'm not interested in anything Tony Blair says – he's a serial liar, serial killer, baby murderer, child murderer, and a spineless coward who surrounds himself with multiple layers of protection while leaving everyone else – particularly Iraqis! – exposed to the consequences of British foreign policy and brutality.

    Tony Blair has zero credibility and no morality.

  • eenymeeny

    A thought-provoking blog entry and comments!

    On the event itself. Has anyone commented on the fact that the seizure occurred to time with the two-week holiday (I think that is correct) in Iran? When not only the local populace would be busy with other things, but also whereby any diplomatic business would be considerably slowed?

    My own opinion formed from this and other blogs (such as Juan Cole's) is that this is the Revolutionary Guards all the way, and Iran as a political entity (if that can even be said to really exist) is still deciding how best to look into the mouth of this apparent gift horse.

    In other developments, one news site tells me that British troops have surrounded the Iranian embassy in Basra, Iraq. No separate confirmations yet.

  • Craig


    I can't accept that it is simply an innocent error, on such a high profile matter, that a "potential" boundary was depicted as a real one.

    The problem is, and with the greatest (genuine) respect to Naval Hydrographers, even drawing a median line is as much an art as a science, especially in an area where the sands shift rather dramatically. Even if both sides to a negotiation agreed on a strict median line approach, I am pretty sure in these waters they would have plenty to argue about.

    I wouldn't entirely accept your characterisation that, prior to agreement, the median line becomes the de facto boundary. My recollection is that UNCLOS stipulates that nations should not try to enforce territorial sea claims beyond a median line pending dispute resolution. That is not entirely the same thing, rather a sensible conflict avoidance mechanism.

    The problem is, to the best of my knowledge, the median line we have produced has not been adopted or confirmed by any international organisation. It is no more and no less than the UK government's view of a possible median line. You argue it is quite a good one. Fair enough. The Iranians may have another view. Both views can be quite legitimately held.

    There is nothing outlandish about a maritime boundary dispute. Even twelve years ago when we did UK/Ireland, we had to leave little stretches that could not be resolved. And we were using median lines – they are not nearly as simple as you seem to think. Look at US/Canada, or Norway/Greenland, or scores of others.

    A final thought on the validitiy of the land boundary, and just to complicate matters further. This was due under the treaty for mandatory review in 1985, 1995 and 2005, provided for in the treaty because the sands shift. These reviews did not happen, not least because the two countries waged a long war across this border. As far as I am aware, neither country has repudiated the Treaty due to the lack of the stipulated reviews, although it could perhaps be argued that the border war was itself a pretty emphatic repudiation. But given the lack of the stipulated reviews, even the settled bit of the border may be a bit fuzzier than we are making out.

    It is beyond dispute that a primary purpose of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is to prevent unwarranted interference with merchant shipping. By insisting on our right to interfere with shipping right up to our obstinate view of what the boundary (to which we are not a party) should be, we are being very provocative.

    What we should be saying to Iran is "We did not intend to leave Iraqi territorial waters. We acknowledge that boundaries in this part of the Persian Gulf are yet to be finally settled and the area is subject to dispute. No offence or intrusion was intended. We would support any moves by Iraq and Iran to reach a definitive maritime boundary agreement"

  • eenymeeny


    This from the German Deutsche Presse Agentur <a href="http://(http://www.abendblatt.de/daten/2007/03/29/715427.html):” target=”_blank”>(http://www.abendblatt.de/daten/2007/03/29/715427.html):

    "Das Grenzmarkierungsabkommen im Schatt al-Arab, das 1975 von den damals verfeindeten Nachbarl?ndern Iran und Irak unterzeichnet wurde, ist technisch kompliziert und politisch kontrovers. Die Aufteilung des Seegebiets war einer der Gr?nde f?r den achtj?hrigen Krieg zwischen dem Iran und dem Irak (1980-1988). Saddam Hussein hatte den Vertrag kurz nach Kriegsanfang vor laufenden Kameras verbrannt."

    It states that the sea boundaries were a cause for the Iran-Iraq war, and that Saddam Hussein burnt the treaty on television after the war started.

    I can't substantiate this, but this does make it clear that no-one should be any doubt that the border is in huge doubt.

  • Richard II

    Just to add to my earlier post about Blair's complete lack of credibility.

    It's disgusting that people are willing to indulge Tony Blair when he'd happily destroy any of you if you got in his way, or his corporate buddies' way.

    Tony Blair has zero credibility and no morality, and neither does this country in regard to our relations with other nations, particularly "Third World" nations.

    As well as lying over WMD, Blair told us that corporate "globalization" is inevitable – we must accept it, not fight it, for that is our best hope of advancement.

    In 2000, Bolivia's water supply was handed over to a British company and Bechtel. People living in extreme poverty saw prices rise, and if anyone tried to circumvent the privatization by using rainwater, they were told they'd be arrested.

    Tony Blair's message to the Bolivians was: don't struggle, let me and my perverted corporate friends spit in your faces – and watch us smile as we do it.

    The Bolivians fought back, and won, but not without a few people dying first:

    "Bolivia's Water War Victory":


    It's time to thoroughly examine how we are treating foreigners. Only then will we have a right to complain about how foreigners are treating a handful of our own people.

    This is like George Orwell's 1984 and the two minute hate – everyone getting worked up into a frenzy of hate, and then Tony Blair's face appears, and we relax, fall silent, in the belief that he'll save us from the enemy stalking around just outside our borders.

    The marines are being used by Tony Blair – they are mere cannon fodder.

  • RecycleMan

    Although I do not know the true facts about this episode, fabrications on the part of the UK, the US and Israel are well-known. So liars must prove themselves worthy of our trust – many times. Therefore, it's best to never take whatever the Bushites, Blair and Olmert say at face value.

    Craig – BRAVO on your courage – it's tough when proffering an 'unpopular' opinon. We respect your courage!

    Ray Hrycko, USA

  • Richard II

    Just a final nail in the coffin for Blair's integrity as a Prime Minister and as a human being.

    Those who think that the British government may not care about foreigners, but it does care about British citizens, need to do some rethinking.

    Blair is being very vocal over this maritime incident involving Iran. So why wasn't he this vocal in 2003, when Tom Hurndall, a 22-year-old British student, was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier?:

    "My son lived a worthwhile life":

    To this day, Tony Blair has refused to condemn the shooting, even though an inquest – which Israel boycotted! – found the Israeli Defence Forces guilty of intentionally killing Mr Hurndall:

    "British peace activist was 'intentionally killed'":

    "'We are astonished to this day that Tony Blair has never publicly condemned the shooting of Tom,' Joyce Hurndall said. 'It is necessary for the Israelis to hear condemnation from him.'"

    So think. Why does Blair condemn Iran for potentially putting some of our military men and women in harm's way, but not Israel when it needlessly kills defenseless British citizens.

    James Miller was another British citizen deliberately killed by an Israeli soldier <a href="http://(http://www.justice4jamesmiller.info)” target=”_blank”>(http://www.justice4jamesmiller.info) – again, there has been complete silence from Tony Blair:

    "Inquests find Israeli military guilty of killings of British civilians":

    "…the Blair government has made no serious effort to secure the lives of its citizens working in Palestine or justice for their killers. One can imagine the frenzy of condemnation and threats of retribution that would come out of London if Hamas had been responsible for such killings."

    To say Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett (the brave woman who told the impoverished islanders of Diego Garcia to shove it) are repulsive individuals would be criminally understating things.

  • Tony Walker

    Iraqi waters, Iranian waters? They say 1.7 miles inside Iraqi waters, well that should put them 3,000 miles outside UK waters then!

  • tim


    The Iranian Government is using the same maps,the same boundaries as the UK government.

    You seem to be the only one that considers the boundary "fake"

  • Craig


    I am sorry, you have lost me. They may be using the same map for illustrative purposes (though I haven't seen it), but they have never accepted this boundary. If they have now, that's an important development, but you'll have to point me towards the evidence that shows what you say.

    Maritime boundaries don't appear by magic. They are enshrined in treaties, judgements or arbitrations and registered with the UN. Where do you find this boundary?

  • Loren

    Fact check time:

    1) Iran objected to the British coordinates and gave their own. Thus Iran in effect says the British coordinates are in Iraqi water.

    2) When it was pointed out that the coordinates they gave were also in Iraqi water they gave a second set of coordinates.

    The only conclusion I can reach is that Iran perfectly well knows they were in the wrong.

    As for the Vincennes–yes, it was in Iranian waters. This is utterly irrelevant, though–it ended up there maneuvering while under Boghammer attack!

  • Craig


    You are quite simply wrong in logic. That Iran gives coordinates closer to Iran than Britain does is not unsurprising. It would want to claim the incident was closer towards Iran, just as Britain would want to say it was closer towards Iraq. There is no way that necessarily indicates they accept the British line.

    Certainly they are aware of the British boundary line – it has been published everywhere. If they did give the second coordinate to place it the other side of the British line (and we can only guess that was their motive), they could just be indicating – "Look, even by your own line, you were across it". To say that in no way implies acceptance of that line. Your logic is just wrong.

    Besides which, in law the only way you accept a boundary is to sign a treaty, judgement or arbitration and lodge it with an international authority – and Iran irrefutably has done none of those things.

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