Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Iran/UK - Location, Location, Location.

The British government has released data which it says proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that it's sailors were in Iraqi waters when they were seized at gunpoint by Iran. It provides co-ordinates - 29' 50.36 N, 048' 43.08E - which it says pinpoint the scene and is ridiculing Iran for providing two different positions for the incident. When it was pointed out that Iran's first given position was still inside Iraqi waters, even by their own definitions, they changed it and provided a new one, almost 2 land miles away from the first and in Iranian waters by about 700 yards.

(I'd also note that the UK government has suddenly changed the emphasis on one part of its story - the original vessel being inspected by the UK sailors had been described previously as Iranian operated and with an Iranian homeport. Now it's being described as Indian registered. In neither case, however, was it Iraqi - which is what the US media has been saying until now.)

It looks like an open-and -shut case. The UK is in the right and Iran is wrong. Given that, I would have no problem in joining with the UK government in calling for the immediate release of my felow British countrymen. Although I would still differ with many in the US that the seizure was part of some vast Iranian conspiracy which has already seen them take over the Iraqi government with their moles and agents. (if so, why are US and UK troops still fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government? Let the Iranians do it.)

The BBC usefully shows a close-up of an official Admiralty photo. It is of a GPS handheld unit which supposedly shows the exact location of the incident, as taken from a UK Naval helicopter hovering over thescene after the seizures took place.

Why am I posting the close-up? Because the figure differs from the published UK version. First I needed a quick geography revision:
A degree of latitude is approximately 69 miles, and a minute of latitude is approximately 1.15 miles. A second of latitude is approximately 0.02 miles, or just over 100 feet.

A degree of longitude varies in size. At the equator, it is approximately 69 miles, the same size as a degree of latitude. The size gradually decreases to zero as the meridians converge at the poles. At a latitude of 45 degrees, a degree of longitude is approximately 49 miles.
The location on the handheld is N29 50.174, E48 43.544.

Even given that the handheld unit shows location in a digital form - seconds are shown as 1000th of a minute after a decimal point - it's very clear that this location is different from the published official one. Not by much - about 20 seconds further East and South, but this shows exactly how "sure" the UK government really is. That's almost 100 yards closer to what even the US and UK admit are Iranian waters in an area where yards matter a very great deal indeed. Iran, as has noted before by myself and others, has a different idea of what comprises Iranian waters, based upon a pre-Iran/Iraq war treaty that was never ratified and a non-standard way of determining the extent of boundaries. I've seen no reporting as yet on whether the location given above in the photo would be considered by the Iranians to be their waters.

It seems clear to me that, in those waters, no-one knows exactly anything at all about locations. The entire incident has been generated, therefore, by over-zealous localal commanders on both sides who should have known better that operations in such borderline conditions would inevitably lead to an international incident. If both sides could admit that, the whole thing could be simply and peacefully resolved. I've a feeling that Iranian pride and bellicosity combined with British pride and a push from behind by the Bush administration will prevent that easy solution.

Update I should make something clear - while I think both sides made mistakes, I think the Iranian local commander made the bigger mistake and that Iran's leadership then compounded that mistake by not releasing the British sailors immediately, accompanied by a formal protest at the British mistake in pushing the envelope so closely at such a time of heightened tensions. They should now remedy that over-reaction forthwith.

According to the most recent reports, Iran may be realizing that.
Iran said a female British sailor seized with 14 other crew members would be released Wednesday or Thursday, softening Tehran's position by suggesting their boats' alleged entry into Iranian waters may have been a mistake.

...Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki discounted the possibility of an escalation in the crisis, suggesting the British vessels may have made a mistake.

"This is a violation that just happened. It could be natural. They did not resist," he told The Associated Press.

"Today or tomorrow, the lady will be released," Mottaki said Wednesday on the sidelines of an Arab summit in the Saudi capital, referring to sailor Faye Turney, 26, the only woman among the 15.

The Iranian Embassy in London also said: "We are confident that Iranian and British governments are capable of resolving this security case through their close contacts and cooperation."
It's turning into a face-saving exercize for both sides now. That's far better than ratcheting up the war talk. Hopefully, this won't become the latest causus belli much wished for by the US extreme Right after all.

Update 2 Maybe I spoke too soon. I realize that it was a populist political move for the home audience, but Iran has shown footage of the captured British sailors on TV, which is a big diplomatic mistake. The footage contains the obligatory confession scene, which isn't going to convince anyone of anything even if they had doubts about the UK's version of events before.

The AP story includes the news that "a spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said any showing of British personnel on TV would be a breach of the Geneva Conventions." I'd love to know where he got that one from. What clause and which Convention? As far as I know, the Geneva Conventions only apply to servicemen during an armed conflict - where they refer to POW's. Does Blair, through his spokesman, really want to send the signal that he, at least. considers the UK to be already in a state of undeclared war with Iran? I wonder what parliament will have to say about that?

Update 3 As a commenter here and the Guardian both note, the footage of the captured sailors wasn't for domnestic consumption, but rather for an Arabic audience.
The video was broadcast by al-Alam, an Iranian satellite channel broadcasting across the Middle East in Arabic. It was not shown in Farsi to a domestic Iranian audience. It included footage of other marines and sailors sitting and eating in a nondescript room, showing no obvious signs of injury. It also showed a handwritten letter purporting to be by Leading seaman Turney to her parents, saying she had "written a letter to the Iranian people to apologise for us entering into their waters".
Am I the only one who is connecting that to Saudi Arabia's assertion today that the Iraqi occupation is "illegitimate" and coming to the conclusion that the Bush administration's inept machiavelianism in the Mid-East may have finally driven even its staunchest Sunni Arab allies into co-operating with Iran instead?

The Guardian notes too that al-Alam "is thought to have ties to ultra-conservative factions in Tehran." There could well be a turf fight inside Iran's leadership over what's the best course - diplomatic settlement or more confrontation. That wouldn't be good.


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