There has been a lot of interest generated by the view of former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, on the maritime border between Iran and Iraq at the frontier to the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The capture of 15 British naval personnel has raised a question as to whether there is or is not a border there at all.
I have a lot of respect for Murray, particularly in regards to his stand on Uzbekistan, but I have to disagree with his assessment of the existence of the borders at the Shatt end of the Persian Gulf.
The British Government has published a map showing the coordinates of the incident, well within an Iran/Iraq maritime border. The mainstream media and even the blogosphere has bought this hook, line and sinker. But there are two colossal problems. A) 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, and they never have done this in the Gulf, only inside the Shatt because there it is the land border too. This published boundary is a fake with no legal force. B) Accepting the British coordinates for the position of both HMS Cornwall and the incident, both were closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land. Go on, print out the map and measure it. Which underlines the point that the British produced border is not a reliable one.Well, yes and no.
Murray is quite correct in stating that the boundary on the British chart does not exist. At least by agreement. That would be a border established by a treaty and then entered into law. That doesn't mean one doesn't exist by convention.
The actions of the Iranians themselves indicate that they accept the conventional border as drawn on the British chart. When the initially advertised position of the capture of the Royal Navy boats put them on the Iraqi side of the line on the British chart, the Iranians changed the geographic location of the capture to put them on the Iranian side of the boundary displayed on the British chart. They wouldn't do that unless they accepted that boundary, even temporarily, as having some force.
The corporate media has been harkening back to the 1975 agreement which settled a dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway by following the thalweg or, deepest part of the river, and dividing it. This is a common means of establishing a border where the river forms the boundary between two countries, as is the case with the Danube in Europe.
Big media has it right, in a small sense, but they don't know why. The dispute between Iraq and Iran over the Shatt al-Arab waterway has been going on since 1639. The 1975 Algiers Accord resolved the division of the waterway between the two land masses but did not clear up the sea frontier. When the media, and Tony Blair, refer back to the Algiers Accord as the resolution of that frontier they are wrong.
What happens, in the absence of any other treaty, law or international convention is that a straight line extension of the same angle as the land boundary is drawn out to seaward for 12 miles. With no other means of determining the actual boundary, that is the only method of being able to resolve the territorial waters of two adjacent countries.
However, there is more information. Iran claims a 12 mile territorial limit. The baseline, or point of origin for that measurement is a mudflat which only dries at low tide. Many people have been claiming, quite incorrectly, that the baseline for territorial waters is the high water mark. In fact, Iran is using the baseline properly for the measured distance to seaward. It is the rest of their claim which is off the mark and those who jump on the "Iran was within its rights" bandwagon do so without understanding the UN Convention of the Law Of The Sea.
Iran, Iraq and Kuwait have all signed the UNCLOS agreement. Iran has the right to establish a 12 mile territorial limit to seaward from the low tide mark of their land in accordance with the convention.
Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention.So does Kuwait, and that causes a problem because if both enforce a 12 mile limit in all seaward directions from their land mass Iraq is totally cut off from the Persian Gulf. That is prohibited by the same convention Part II, Section 2, Article 7, para 6.
Except where otherwise provided in this Convention, the normal baseline for measuring the breadth of the territorial sea is the low-water line along the coast as marked on large-scale charts officially recognized by the coastal State.
6. The system of straight baselines may not be applied by a State in such a manner as to cut off the territorial sea of another State from the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.Essentially, what that says is that Iran cannot use the measurement that would give them a territorial sea in all directions to seaward, 12 miles from the baseline. They are not allowed to cut off Iraq and must accept prior use by Iraq as a means of establishing a boundary.
That goes back to the original event. While the boundary is murky, and crowds of people are protesting the British chart as being an arbitrary invention of their own, the Iranians, attempting to continue justification of their act, changed the position they said they had captured the RN boats to put themselves on the Iranian side of the conventional line. They had a good reason for doing that. They did not want to get into an UNCLOS dispute because
a) it would dilute their intended purpose and change the focus of their actions;
b) they would lose any argument in which they claimed territorial waters beyond the conventional border described by the British.
I get a little irked when I see people take a position that Iran needs to be given the benefit of the doubt over the position they were in when they took those sailors and marines hostage. That's patronizing and it belies the fact that Iran is not some bunch of medieval, turban-wearing religious nutballs. The Iranians are a completely capable crew with a full grasp of international conventions. Their leader is whacked out, but overall, underestimating the Iranians and their ability to play a grand strategy would be to make a huge mistake.
The maritime boundary between Iraq and Iran isn't why Iran captured those sailors and marines anyway. Much closer to the real reason is here.