Murky Waters

The Dispute over the British sailors held by Iran is not as clear cut as Blair has suggested

There's no clear boundary between Iranian and Iraqi waters outside the Shatt Al Arab

Craig Murray, who was head of the Maritime Unit of the British Foreign Office from 1989 to 1992 , has pointed out that while in theory the Conventions on the Laws of the Sea fix international maritime boundaries at 12 miles from a country's coast , or else half-way between two countries' coasts (whichever is less) in practice this isn't so simple.

Due to disputed sandbanks and islands and the irregular shape of coastlines( which create disputes over what triangulation points to measure from on each coast) the only way to decide where the maritime boundaries between Iran and Iraq are would be through negotiating fixed boundaries which have not been negotiated in the disputed waters our sailors were taken captive in. (They have been negotiated in the Shatt Al Arab to the North)

The Royal Navy commander of the operation in which our sailors and marines were taken captive told the BBC in an interview:

“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.( BBC video here)

Murray also points out that an article in the US military's Stars and Stripes Magazine in October last year quoted a US naval task force commander in the Persian Gulf saying “No maritime border has been agreed upon by the two countries”.

The same article says “Bumping into” the Iranians can’t be helped in the northern Persian Gulf, where the lines between Iraqi and Iranian territorial water are blurred, officials said.”

This means all the maps and GPS co-ordinates provided by both the British and the Iranians prove nothing - because any boundary lines they mark are completely arbitrary and could easily be disputed in the absence of a carefully negotiated maritime boundary which does not exist in those waters

The first game our sailors may be pawns in:

The US (Cheney & Abrams) & The Sunnis Vs Iran and the Shia

Ahmadenijad or the Revolutionary Guards may have planned to swap our sailors for the Iranians held by the US. The US government has ruled this out.

The background to this is worth knowing though.

The renowned American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh (the first to report the My Lai and Abu Ghraib stories) reports in the New Yorker magazine that Vice President Cheney and Elliot Abrams are up to their old tricks. In the 80s they backed the Contras and the Mujahedin (including Bin Laden) to "contain Soviet power". Now they're backing Sunni extremists who have the same ideology as Al Qaeda to 'contain Iranian power' and trying to provoke Iran's Shia government into providing them with a pretext for war.

The Former US diplomats intelligence officers of VIPS also point to Bush's and Blair's plans in 2003 to create a pretext for war on Iraq by creating various international incidents. They say there is the possibility Bush and blair are currently doing the same with Iran now.

In December last year US forces in Iraq stormed what Iran (and the Iraqi government) claims was the Iranian consulate in Irbil in Northern Iraq and took away several Iranians. (I will not say arrested, detained or kidnapped as all of these descriptions could all be disputed). Iran claimed two were diplomats ; and the US claims these two were released. There are still 5 Iranians held by coalition forces though whose fate remains unknown other than that they are ;in detention; according to the Multi-national (mainly American and British) forces in Iraq.

It's possible that the Iranian government (or a faction in it) decided , as some experts have suggested, that they would counter this by capturing British forces; either to stop more of their people being taken prisoner or to use as leverage to negotiate the release of those already taken.

According to Amnesty International's annual report for 2006 the American and British forces in Iraq continue to hold Iraqis without trial and continue to torture some of them;. We can't know if the Iranians taken prisoner by US forces in Iraq have been tortured ; but it is a possibility. Human Rights Watch also say the Multi-National Forces in Iraq treat terrorists, combatants and civilians in exactly the same way ; lock them up indefinitely and torture some of them.

Iranian agents in Iraq - and US Special forces in Iran

The capture of the Iranians followed from President Bush's order to US forces in Iraq to target and capture Iranian agents working in Iraq to aid forces carrying out attacks on US and British forces and on Iraqi civilians. Are there such agents? It seems likely and many Iraqis claim to have seen Iranians in Iraq ; though this is complicated by some Sunnis seeing Shia Iraqis as being 'Persians' or 'Iranians'. They might well be arming Iraqi shia militia groups. They are highly unlikely to be involved in car, truck or suicide bombings of civilians as these almost always target Shias ; including Shia pilgrims travelling to the Shia holy places of Iraq (many of whom are Iranian shia). Those bombings are carried out by sunni extremist groups such as Al Qa'ida in Iraq and other groups who share their ideology ; groups of the kind Cheney and the Saudis are backing to 'contain Iranian influence'.

Most of the Improvised Explosive Devices used in road-side bombings to target coalition troops and supply vehicles are probably set by Sunni insurgents ; though it is possible that in the South some Shia could be involved. The Bush administration and the Blair government claim Iranian military and paramilitary groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Al Quds organisation have provided insurgents with the technology and/or training to make such bombs.

It would be vaguely conceivable that Iranian forces might take the same short-sighted 'current enemy of my enemy is my friend' view and aid sunni insurgents too. There is no evidence of this though ; and since many sunni extremist groups (including Al Qa'ida) see Shia as 'apostates' who should be killed rather than as Muslims this would be very risky. Seven of the shia drivers sent from Baghdad and Najaf to bring supplies to the mainly sunni town of Falluja in 2004 when it was besieged by coalition forces were beheaded by insurgents.

Until Bush's speech in 2002 in which he named Iran's government as part of the "Axis of Evil" Iran's government had been sharing intelligence and co-operating with US/UK operations in Afghanistan against the Sunni extremist Taliban and Al Qaeda. After that speech they released the notorious Afghan warlord Hekmatyar (who they had jailed when he fled to Iran) and allowed him to return to Afghanistan.

There are also, ( according to Seymour Hersh's Pentagon and CIA sources and other reports ) US special forces in Iran who have been there since 2004 identifying possible targets for US air strikes. The Iranian government claim that they are aiding armed Arab separatist groups in the Iranian province of Khuzestan - who have carried out bombings that have killed Iranian governors and soldiers. The Iranians also hold suspected Arab separatists without trial, torture them and execute some without fair trial - but it's important to know that it's not just Iranian forces that are alleged to be aiding attacks on US and British forces in Iraq (plausibly but without much hard proof at all). Its also that American special forces and possibly British SAS too are alleged to aiding attacks on the Iranian military in Iran (again with no hard proof - though Hersh has been reliable in his 30 year career). We do know that since US special forces are preparing for war on Iran and Bush has made it clear Iran is on the 'Axis of Evil' target list they may see aiding Iraqi insurgents as being as legitimate as the Pentagon and the MoD may see aiding Arab insurgents in Iran.

Why further sanctions, military action or war would back-fire

Those who suggest sanctions or military action risk making Ahmadenijad even more popular as many Iranians still distrust the US and UK due to our governments' role in supporting the Shah's coup which overthrew the popular elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953.

Now as in 1953 control of Iran's oil was the central issue. Mossadeq planned to nationalise Iran's oil industry - then owned by the British company Anglo-Iranian oil (now BP) which at that time paid its Iranian employees a pittance and allowed the Iranian government only a small share of oil revenues.

The British and American governments also supported the Shah's dictatorship till its overthrow in 1979. (President Carter giving asylum to the Shah triggered the storming of the US embassy in Tehran.) The current Iranian government has a bad human rights record - but the Shah was even worse. There are at least some limited elements of democracy in modern Iran - and dissidents, even among the Ayatollahs, who reject the position of the 'Supreme Leader' as un-Islamic and demand more democracy. War or military strikes on Iran would weaken them and strengthen the theocratic elements. It couldn't prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons sooner or later either.

What's more Israel, with US equipment and training and with considerable armour, artillery and air forces Hezbollah lacked , failed to defeat the Iranian backed Hezbollah and the IDF took heavy casualties in a war over Israeli soldiers taken captive by Hezbollah last year. There is no guarantee the US and UK would do better against Iran which has an air force ; particularly with Shia militias and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad and across Southern Iraq behind our forces.

The second game and a possible solution: Ahmadenijad may be satisfied with an apology which gives him temporary prestige over domestic political rivals

Even if the US won't swap the Iranians it holds in Iraq for the British sailors (and under international law both lots of detainees should be either released (in the case of the British) or either released or tried - in the case of the Iranians held in Iraq) there may still be a way to get our people back safely

Ahmadenijad may be looking to gain prestige among Iranians by being seen to stand up to Britain as the former colonial power. He's currently under pressure from striking bus drivers and teachers (whose union leaders he has disgracefully jailed after sending police to beat demonstrating teachers ). This and high unemployment in Iran have strengthened Ahmadenijad's political rivals such as former President Rafsanjani who has said he and the Guardian Council may take over Iran's economic policy - which Rafsanjani says Ahamadenijad has failed on.

There is , as Murray says, no excuse for the Iranians holding our sailors as long as they have ; but if our government would admit that the waters they were in were disputed and issue an apology of sorts (whether we are morally obliged to or not) we would have a better chance of getting our people back. Prestige may be enough for Ahmadenijad here.

We should negotiate the release of our people, making an apology over a misunderstanding over disputed waters if necessary. Does it really matter if we temporarily lose face as a result or Ahmadenijad temporarily gains some? Not much compared to getting our people back. We can then condemn the length of time they were held afterwards. Then we should bring all our troops home from Iraq before Cheney and Abrams or Ahmadenijad can risk their lives by using them as pawns again.

As the Iraq Study Group's report pointed out US troops are not seen as neutral by Iraqis so cannot successfully get the militias and insurgents to disarm or make peace.The same logic applies to British troops. Only a UN force or a joint Arab League and Iranian operation could do that - and they can't achieve it under US Command (which is what the Bush administration has demanded in the past).

A third force with legitimacy in Iraqi eyes is the only solution for Iraq. Our troops should be brought home from an imposible situation in which they are being used as pawns.