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.
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
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?
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
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
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
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
continues to take a reasonable line, Iran should reciprocate to deflate a
dangerous situation that could so easily spiral out of everyone�s control.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.