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ANALYSIS: Iranian Seizure of Royal Navy Sailors

Commentary, 26 March 2007
Maritime Forces, Europe, Middle East and North Africa
In light of the established evidence, the Iranian seizure of Royal Navy personnel seems bizarre

During the morning of Friday 23 March, two ‘rigid inflatable boats’ with fifteen marines and sailors from the frigate HMS Cornwall conducted a ‘stop and search’ operation, onboard a merchant ship that had some of the characteristics that triggered a search. Cornwall was operating at the invitation of the Iraqi government and under the mandate of a United Nations Security Council Resolution; so, too, was the merchant ship. The area was within the Iraqi territorial seas south-east of the Al Fawr peninsula. The stop and search operations were part of a routine tasking for British and other coalition ships.

The officer in command of HMS Cornwall and of the Multinational Naval Force, Commodore Nick Lambert indicated that the boarding party had been received courteously on board the merchant ship, and had done their search without any obstruction. As the boarding party left, they lost radio contact with Cornwall and were evidently ambushed by several Iranian patrol craft and arrested. The circumstances of the arrest have not been made clear, and no reports have been made available from the ship’s Lynx helicopter which had, according to the Commodore, been providing ‘top cover’. The sailors and marines were then taken up the Shatt al-Arab waterway that divides Iran from Iraq to an Iranian base on the eastern side.

The diplomatic exchanges gathered pace, with the Iranian Ambassador being summoned to the Foreign Office where a demand was made for the safe and swift return of the British sailors. Shortly thereafter the British Ambassador in Teheran was called into the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the British were accused of intruding into Iranian waters. The British sailors were then at some stage taken to Teheran where they were reportedly interrogated and ‘confessed under interrogation’ to entering Iranian waters. An Iranian authority suggested that the British captives would be charged with espionage.

The accuracy of navigation on both sides can be debated. There is virtually no doubt that the two British boats knew where they were, and that their positions would have been monitored and tracked both by the ship and the Lynx. There was also good radio contact that could have warned the British boats had they strayed from their designated area. The British account was confirmed later by US monitoring systems. If the British knew where they were (in Iraqi waters), and the Iranians thought they were somewhere else (in Iranian waters), then either the Iranian navigation was at fault or there was deception. It is unlikely that there was a British navigational error, not least because their mission was overt, and was being overseen by the host country and the US. Let us for the moment hope that there was a navigational error on one side or the other, because that offers a let-out clause if one is being sought. If an easy solution is not being sought, then we may disregard the details of the navigational argument; in the last resort in an international dispute like this, any evidence can be denied.

But it has to be noted that the Iranians have ‘form’ on kidnapping. In 2004, eight sailors and marines were captured up the Shatt al-Arab and detained for four days, and were subjected to such unpleasant treatment as mock executions. Their boats and equipment were never returned. But the more serious incident was the taking of 61 Americans as hostages in November 1979, who were not released until January 1981.

If this was not a constabulary action by the Iranians, that went wrong, what was it? At present there is only conjecture. But reports of the capture of the British sailors have been juxtaposed, if not explicitly linked, to Iranian anger at the additional measures agreed by the UN Security Council on Friday evening in New York. The presence of the British had been well-known and the whole incident could have been planned in advance and actioned on the day.

Another possibility could have been that British-Iranian relations across the Iranian-Iraqi border have been quite bad for some time, due to Iranian infiltrations. Perhaps this was an attempt to show that the traffic was not all one way.

Or again, the oil-platforms in Cornwall’s operating area have been most successful, pumping over 90 per cent of Iraqi oil. The Iraqi Navy has also been progressing strongly, with British assistance. Do the Iranians want to destabilize Iraqi oil production? If so, the tactics look bizarre.

And finally, the US authorities had arrested a group of Iranians in Iraq a few days previously, suspected of weapons smuggling. Was this displaced retaliation?

In due course we shall probably learn. We need to hope and work towards the release of the sailors and marines being sooner rather than later. What is sure, is that this incident has now moved from being a small naval squabble to being a substantial diplomatic row. It needs to be kept on the front pages.

Richard Cobbold -- Director, RUSI

This commentary is the personal view of the author and does not reflect the corporate view of RUSI.

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