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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 4th, 2007 - 01:46:18

Forget assumptions, let�s wait for the facts
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 4, 2007, 01:44

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The contretemps between Tehran and London over the detention by Iran of 15 British naval personnel couldn�t have come at a more sensitive time. Iran is in the international doghouse over its uranium enrichment and stands accused by Washington of arming Iraqi Shiite militias. The US has an armada on Iran�s doorstep and may be poised to attack Iran�s nuclear facilities.

Whether or not the British crew were in Iranian waters is almost impossible to assess. It�s feasible that both Britain and Iran are acting in good faith, and it�s just as likely that one side isn�t. Both sides are attempting to convince the international community of their own veracity.

Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray maintains �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 . . . The published boundary is a fake with no legal force.�

In fairness, at this point in the proceedings, no one should take sides. If the sailors and marines are guilty of trespass then Iran had every right to arrest them, especially as Britain and the US are hand-in-glove in Iraq and Iran is being threatened with attack.

Just imagine what would have happened if the shoe had been on the other foot and Iranian boats had been caught within Britain�s 12-nautical miles limit.

Would Iranian sailors have received a cheery wave and an offer of afternoon tea in picturesque Dover or would they have been escorted to shore at gunpoint and detained?

For lay observers in the West, the easy option is to jump to conclusions that Iran must be in the wrong. It may be but shouldn�t we strive to keep an open mind?

The mainstream Western media - with some notable exceptions - are particularly guilty of painting the picture in Britain�s favour by quoting Ministry of Defence assertions without question and garnering analysis from biased pundits, who invariably portray Britain as an honourable victim and Iran as a rogue state led by irrational individuals. Those same pundits were just as convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Sake of balance

For the sake of balance, let�s hypothetically suppose the Iranians are correct in their contention. In that case, all Downing Street had to do was admit their chaps had made a genuine mistake and apologise and, presumably, we�d now be saying all�s well that ends well.

But instead Britain�s Prime Minister Tony Blair came out swinging, making threats of imposing sanctions and restrictions on Iranians, and appealing to the US, the EU, the UN and NATO to turn the screws.

A few days ago, the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki promised the lone female among the detainees, Faye Turney, would shortly be released. There were indications that release of the others would follow suit. But instead of soft diplomacy, British government spokespersons proceeded to step up accusations prompting the Iranian government to dig in its heels.

One of Britain�s main beefs is the way that its naval personnel were �paraded� on television and in the case of Faye Turley forced to write pro-Iranian �propaganda� letters to her family. There was much huffing and puffing about the Geneva Conventions, which do, indeed, stipulate that prisoners of war must not be made objects of curiosity.

In essence, no one can argue with this from a legal standpoint, except to say members of the crew are not prisoners of war because Britain and Iran are not in a state of war. But let�s not be overly pedantic.

In truth, Britain�s association with the US has caused it to lose any moral platform on this issue it might otherwise have had. America - and, by default Britain - shredded the Geneva Conventions when it opened Guantanamo and authorised rendition of detainees to countries where interrogators aren�t squeamish about using electrodes.

When Blair has remained virtually silent on those illegal practices, how can he, in all good conscience, complain when his own people are televised, not hooded, chained or shackled but heartily tucking in to a meal.

He says such scenes will upset the sailors� families but if I were in their place, I would prefer to see my loved one alive, well and, in some cases, smiling than have to wonder whether they might be deprived of food and water while chained to the floor of a dungeon.

History tells us that we would do well not to jump to conclusions. On Sunday, July 2, 1988, an Iranian commercial flight was shot down by a Navy guided missile cruiser the USS Vincennes, which was four kilometres inside Iranian waters.

The US government said it had mistakenly identified the passenger aircraft as a fighter plane and insisted their ship had not trespassed. The then president of the US, George H.W. Bush, refused to apologise saying, �I will never apologise for the United States - I don�t care what the facts are.�

Three years later, Admiral William J. Crowe admitted to Nightline that the Vincennes had been in violation of Iranian territory when it shot down the plane.

Britain has already toned down the rhetoric and, according to last Sunday�s Observer, �the ministry of defence has hinted for the first time it may have made mistakes surrounding the incident.� The article states �an enquiry has been commissioned to explore �navigational� issues around the kidnapping and aspects of maritime law.�� Common sense at last!

Provided Britain continues to take a reasonable line, Iran should reciprocate to deflate a dangerous situation that could so easily spiral out of everyone�s control.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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