Line games

Obviously, the seizure of 15 British marines and sailors and the Iranians’ use of them as pawns in a propaganda game is a deadly serious business. Yet there’s also plenty of farce amid the danger: The Iranians also blundered in diplomatic talks by giving the British their own compass reference for the place where they ...

602922_070330_faw_05.jpg
602922_070330_faw_05.jpg

Obviously, the seizure of 15 British marines and sailors and the Iranians' use of them as pawns in a propaganda game is a deadly serious business. Yet there's also plenty of farce amid the danger:

The Iranians also blundered in diplomatic talks by giving the British their own compass reference for the place where they said the 14 men and one woman had been seized. When Britain plotted these on a map and pointed out that the spot was in Iraq’s maritime area, the Iranians came up with a new set of coordinates, putting the seizure in their own waters.

Whoops. Turns out, though, that the border issue isn't as black and white as either side claims. King's College of London's Richard Schofield, an expert on the Iran-Iraq border, explained in a telephone interview that although "basically, there is a boundary" nowadays along the Shatt al-Arab, that's not the case further out in the Persian Gulf where the British sailors and marines were taken prisoner. Below is the map presented by the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD):

Obviously, the seizure of 15 British marines and sailors and the Iranians’ use of them as pawns in a propaganda game is a deadly serious business. Yet there’s also plenty of farce amid the danger:

The Iranians also blundered in diplomatic talks by giving the British their own compass reference for the place where they said the 14 men and one woman had been seized. When Britain plotted these on a map and pointed out that the spot was in Iraq’s maritime area, the Iranians came up with a new set of coordinates, putting the seizure in their own waters.

Whoops. Turns out, though, that the border issue isn’t as black and white as either side claims. King’s College of London’s Richard Schofield, an expert on the Iran-Iraq border, explained in a telephone interview that although “basically, there is a boundary” nowadays along the Shatt al-Arab, that’s not the case further out in the Persian Gulf where the British sailors and marines were taken prisoner. Below is the map presented by the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD):

That’s what lends the claims of gadfly Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, a whiff of plausibility. Murray, who also headed the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1989 to 1992, writes on his website that “there is no agreed maritime boundary between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf,” a milder version of his earlier argument that the boundary used by the MoD “is a fake with no legal force.”

Murray is missing the point. True, as Schofield says, “the boundary that [the MoD] showed further south was a little disingenuous, because it doesn’t have the same legal force or weighting, by any means, as the Iran-Iraq boundary.” Explains Schofield, “It’s more just a provisional indication of what Iraq’s territorial water claims might be.” But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander; if there’s no clear border, then Iran doesn’t have a case, either. And as Kaiyan Kaikobad, an associate professor of international law at Durham University, observes in the LA Times, “If you can show that over a reasonably long period of time, that this was the line that both countries actually agreed on, there’s lots of rules in international law that allow that line to become not only a de facto line, but a de jure line.” So the MoD could be right after all.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to chalk the whole thing up to a misunderstanding about maritime law, though, the Iranians keep digging themselves into a deeper diplomatic hole, and the British are happy to hand them the shovel. It’s clear from the Iranian actions that this isn’t really about territorial waters, in any case. After all, the Iranians could have politely notified the British Navy that their boat was in the wrong spot, and the two sides could have worked it out like gentlemen. Instead, we get an absurd hostage situation and a diplomatic crisis. So what’s it about?

UPDATE: Be sure to read Craig Murray’s response.

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