Aussies fantastically brave, Brits a bunch of cowards?

The largely unspoken question on many people’s minds back in March when Iranian forces captured fifteen British sailors was: “How did they let this happen?” Now that question is out in the open after revelations surfaced yesterday that Australian sailors had been in a similar situation two years ago—without ending up as hostages. An Australian ...

601001_070622_sailors_05.jpg
601001_070622_sailors_05.jpg

The largely unspoken question on many people's minds back in March when Iranian forces captured fifteen British sailors was: "How did they let this happen?" Now that question is out in the open after revelations surfaced yesterday that Australian sailors had been in a similar situation two years ago—without ending up as hostages.

An Australian Defence Force spokesman said today that the incident took place in December 2004 near the Iran-Iraq maritime border. Royal Australian Navy sailors were approached by Iranian naval personnel brandishing machine guns after the Aussies had boarded a grounded cargo ship. They were about to leave the cargo ship when an Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboat moved closer, and the commander ordered the Australians to reboard the cargo ship. But the Australians "were having none of it," according to the BBC's military source. They strongly negotiated with the Iranians, possibly using "colorful language," before four more Iranian military boats carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers arrived as reinforcements. But after four tense hours, the Australians were "successfully extracted by helicopter" back to the HMAS Adelaide.

So how did they do it? According to Commodore Steve Gilmore, the ADF spokesman,

The largely unspoken question on many people’s minds back in March when Iranian forces captured fifteen British sailors was: “How did they let this happen?” Now that question is out in the open after revelations surfaced yesterday that Australian sailors had been in a similar situation two years ago—without ending up as hostages.

An Australian Defence Force spokesman said today that the incident took place in December 2004 near the Iran-Iraq maritime border. Royal Australian Navy sailors were approached by Iranian naval personnel brandishing machine guns after the Aussies had boarded a grounded cargo ship. They were about to leave the cargo ship when an Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboat moved closer, and the commander ordered the Australians to reboard the cargo ship. But the Australians “were having none of it,” according to the BBC’s military source. They strongly negotiated with the Iranians, possibly using “colorful language,” before four more Iranian military boats carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers arrived as reinforcements. But after four tense hours, the Australians were “successfully extracted by helicopter” back to the HMAS Adelaide.

So how did they do it? According to Commodore Steve Gilmore, the ADF spokesman,

(They) began what I think is very unique in the Australian way and that’s the capacity to negotiate, to introduce extra weighpoints if you like, in the continuum of force.”

Frank Gardner, the BBC reporter who broke the story, was less subtle in his criticism, stating that the British should be embarrassed about the incident. He added, “The point of this story is not that the Aussies were fantastically brave and the Brits were a bunch of cowards, although I’m sure some people will interpret (it that way),” but that it reveals possible gaps in intelligence-sharing between the two allies, and that lessons were not learned from the Australian experience. Still, while acknowledging that the political situation in 2004 might have been different than 2007, it does make one wonder whether the British sailors—with a bit of gumption (and colorful language)—could have avoided the whole March mess altogether.

Prerna Mankad is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

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