Friday, March 23, 2007

Incident off the Shat-al-Arab waterway

This is not good at all.
Iran seized 15 British sailors and Marines who were conducting ``routine boarding operations'' in Iraqi waters, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said.

``The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters,'' the ministry said in an e-mailed statement. ``We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level.''

Iran's foreign ministry confirmed seizing the Britons ``for investigation and questioning'' and said it was because British sailors have illegally entered its own territorial waters ``a number of times,'' Agence France-Presse reported, citing Iranian State television.

Tensions have been rising between Western nations and Iran over its nuclear program, and the Islamic Republic has also been accused by the administrations of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush of meddling in Iraq.

The seizure of forces occurred in the Persian Gulf at about 10:30 a.m. Iraqi time today, the ministry said. Britain demanded the immediate return of the military personnel and equipment in a meeting today between Peter Ricketts, the permanent under- secretary at the U.K. Foreign Office, and Rasoul Movahedian, the Iranian ambassador in London, the Foreign Office said.

``The meeting with the Iranian ambassador was brisk but polite, but he was left in no doubt that we want them back,'' U.K. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a televised statement. ``We have asked for a full explanation on what has happened and we are leaving them in no doubt that we want the immediate and safe return of our personnel and their equipment.''

First, there have been several reports that it was the Iranian Navy that did this. That's not the case. It was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and they are a whole different group, operating separately from the Iranian Navy.

Second, the Shat-al-Arab waterway, in which this took place, was granted to Iraq in 1975. The Iranians have never recognized that and continue to lay claim to that region.

Third, this is bad from about twenty different angles, not the least of which, it is the kind of incident which could easily spark off the attack on Iran Bush so desperately wants. It would do well for Bush to allow the British to work this incident without interference.

Lastly, the sailors and marines are from HMS Cornwall, a type 22 frigate. I know it's a little constricted up at that end of the Gulf, but boarding operations usually involve the combatant ship being close by and providing force protection for their boarding party. Reports suggest Cornwall lost communications with the boarding party and a helicopter witnessed the Iranian capture of the British boats. Without more information, it looks like the boarding party was not being covered by their own ship. (That's purely a guess and may be wildly inaccurate).

In any case, the best chance of getting those sailors and marines back safely rests with Bush keeping his nose out and his mouth shut.

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