London, Tehran Clash In War Of Images
April 2, 2007
(RFE/RL) -- London says the 15 British sailors and marines captured on March 23
were unlawfully seized in Iraqi waters, while Tehran says they trespassed into
Both sides are producing evidence: Britain with satellite maps, Iran with
the "confessions" of the sailors themselves.
The dispute over just where
the British sailors were at the time of their capture will probably never be
resolved to everyone's satisfaction, because they were captured offshore of a
region of the Iraqi-Iranian border where the demarcation line itself is subject
to much disagreement.
Iranians protests in front of British embassy in
That region is the Shatt
Al-Arab waterway, a narrow channel where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers jointly
flow into the Persian Gulf. The Shatt Al-Arab -- and the sea boundary offshore
-- has long been used as a bargaining chip between Iran and Iraq and even as a
cause of war.
In 1980, then-Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein dramatically ripped up on television a 1975 treaty establishing
the middle of the river as the frontier. Iraq and Iran then fought an eight-year
war that never ended in a peace treaty.
Still, international maritime
authorities widely accept the 1975 treaty as still standing and have drawn an
imaginary line out to sea from the midpoint of the channel to serve as a sea
boundary until the issue is one day decided.
action by Iranian forces in arresting and detaining our people is unjustified
and wrong. As such it is a matter of deep concern to
Britain argues that its sailors
and marines from the British frigate "HMS Cornwall" were seized well to the west
-- that is, the Iraqi side -- of this line.
"My primary message is clear:
'HMS Cornwall' with her boarding party was about her legal business, in Iraqi
territorial waters, under a United Nations Security Council resolution and with
the explicit approval of the Iraqi government," Royal Navy Vice Admiral Charles
Style, deputy chief of the British defense staff, told reporters on March 28 in
"The action by Iranian forces in arresting and detaining our
people is unjustified and wrong. As such it is a matter of deep concern to us,"
Iranians protests in front of
British embassy in Tehran
The 15 British naval
personnel were seized after they left the "HMS Cornwall" aboard rubber patrol
boats to conduct a routine antismuggling check on a commercial freighter. One of
the rubber boats had a Global Positioning System (GPS) plotter aboard that
communicated the two boats' positions to the "HMS Cornwall" at all
But Iran argues that the plotter on the seized boat registered a
different location than the one presented by Britain. That has prompted a
When Iran presented the first location it claims the plotter
showed, London informed Tehran that this location was also in waters widely
accepted to be Iraqi.
Tehran then provided what it called a "corrected"
rereading of the rubber boat's location plotter. It then claimed the rubber boat
was actually at a second location 1 nautical mile (1.9 kilometers) from the
first Iranian-given position and thus clearly in Iranian
British sailors shown on Iranian TV
As the two countries publicly exchange evidence based on
high-tech locators whose functions most people poorly understand, they also are
waging a hearts-and-minds battle based on what the sailors themselves
is relying heavily in this propaganda war on what it says are voluntary
confessions that the captives trespassed into Iranian territory.
I'd like to say to the Iranian people I can understand why you are so angry
about our intrusion into your waters," British Lieutenant Felix Carmen said in
video aired on April 1 on Iranian state television.
Two other Britons
have also appeared on television. In addition to expressing regret for what they
say is trespass, they have also praised their captors for treating them
"Obviously we trespassed into their waters," Faye Turney, the only
woman crew member, said in a video aired on March 28. "They were very friendly,
very hospitable, very thoughtful, nice people. They explained to us why we'd
been arrested. There was no aggression, no hurt, no harm. They were very, very
Iranians protests in front of
British embassy in Tehran
Style Vs. Substance
All this takes the
propaganda war to a level where arguments citing satellite data from the cold
world of machines confronts the emotional, human testimony of the captives
Iran has sought to direct the argument primarily to
listeners in the Arab world, particularly in Iraq. It has done so by first
airing the British captives' remarks on its Arabic-language foreign broadcasting
channels, particularly Al-Alam television.
Britain has countered in this
battle of emotions by saying Iran is abusing the captives by parading them on
television and forcing them to say untruths.
So far, there is no
evidence that the audience will find the human evidence presented by Iran more
convincing than the machine evidence presented by Britain. But the confrontation
appears to highlight at least some of the cultural differences between the
technology-based West and the more traditional East.
What remains unclear are the precise motives for Iran's
Revolutionary Guards seizing the British personnel when they were on a peaceful
assignment. The "HMS Cornwall" is part of a task force that operates under UN
Security Council authority to catch smugglers in Iraqi waters.
seizure comes at a time of high tension between Iran and the West -- and the UN
Security Council -- over Iran's nuclear program. It largely coincided with a
Security Council vote to expand sanctions against Iran for refusing to halt
same time, Iran is at odds with London and Washington over charges that Iran
supplies money and expertise to militants attacking coalition troops in
And Iran is angry over the seizure by U.S. forces of five Iranians
in northern Iraq in January. Tehran says the five were diplomats but Washington
says they were part of a network of Iranian agents helping anticoalition
Whatever the motives for the seizure of the Britons, there are
suggestions Iran wants a deal.
Tehran demands a formal apology from
London for what it says was trespass into its territory. But U.S. officials have
suggested they think larger demands might be in the offing. Washington has
already ruled out any exchange of the British naval personnel for the five
Iranians taken in Iraq.
The crisis over the British captives has already
run longer than a similar showdown in 2004. In June of that year, six British
marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the Shatt Al-Arab
They were released unharmed three days later after saying they
had entered Iranian waters illegally.
Copyright (c) 2007 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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