When are detentions OK? When the US
On 21 June
took 8 British sailors and marines into custody. They had been on patrol in 2 boats on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and Iran claimed they had strayed on to
the Iranian side of the waterway. The
sailors and marines “confessed” on TV that they had done so and “apologised” to
for this. They were released three days
later after diplomatic contacts with Iran – Jack Straw, who was British
Foreign Secretary at the time, talked to the Iranian Minister of Foreign
Affairs, Kamal Kharazi.
occasion, the British Government didn’t make a song and dance in public about
its military personnel being detained illegally by Iran in Iraqi territorial
waters. Since Iran held all the cards, this was a
sensible attitude to adopt in order to secure their release, even if there was
incontrovertible evidence that they had been detained in Iraqi waters.
sailors and marines were returned, they were kept well away from the
press. As a result, the incident was
quickly forgotten about and the fact that they had “confessed” and “apologised”
didn’t become a matter of public controversy.
It is a
pound to a penny that the Government is now wishing that it had adopted, and
rigorously maintained, a similar approach when 15 sailors and marines were
captured by Iran on 23 March
2007, this time at the head of the Persian Gulf,
just outside the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab
waterway. There is little doubt that, had the Government done so, the matter would have been
resolved more quickly.
Government acted in a way that ensured that the matter was not resolved quietly
and quickly, denouncing Iran
in public for detaining the 15 illegally in Iraqi waters and protesting about
their being “paraded” on TV (which demonstrated that they were alive and
well). As if that wasn’t enough to
ensure that their release would be delayed, the Government made the matter into
an international incident by getting the EU to condemn Iran and demand their release and
by attempting, but failing, to get the Security Council to do likewise.
taking military action against Iran,
it would have been difficult to devise a strategy more likely to prolong their
stay in Iranian custody.
Living up to the myth
2004, the “confessions” and “apologies” of the captured sailors and marines
were barely commented upon, because the issue was settled quietly and
quickly. This time, the Government opted
for public denunciation of Iran
and elevated the matter into a national crisis.
As a result, attention was focussed on their “confessions” and
“apologies” (and for their thanking President Ahmadinejad
personally for releasing them) and questions began to be asked about whether
this was the proper way for British military personnel to behave when
captured. While they remained in Iranian
custody, the unspoken answer to this question was that their readiness to
co-operate was a consequence of the outrageous treatment meted out to them by
their Iranian captors.
they were released, this answer was difficult to maintain. They had not been physically abused. If they had been, pictures of their bruises
would have dominated our TV screens and newspapers ever since. Without any evidence of physical abuse, their
behaviour had to be explained by non-physical pressure – which had the
unfortunate effect of making the 15 appear to be wimps.
they behaved the way they did in order to make their captivity as agreeable,
and as short, as possible. Given the demonisation of Iran that is prevalent in the
British media, it would not have been unreasonable of them to expect rough
treatment if they didn’t. Most people in
their position would have acted in the same way – and so would their armchair
critics back home. But, it is not the
way British military personnel are supposed to behave in captivity, according
to the myths that we have grown up with in Britain in countless accounts of
British military prowess. According to
the myths, captured British military personnel don’t “confess” or “apologise”
for anything without having their finger nails pulled out – at least.
So, when the
15 returned to Britain, the Government felt the need to provide the public with
an explanation as to why the 15 hadn’t lived up to the myth – which was why,
unlike those captured in June 2004, a number of them were required to give a
press conference. Unfortunately, there
wasn’t an explanation that stood up – they had no bruises and the attempt to explain
it in terms of the non-physical pressure to which they were (allegedly) subject
was unconvincing, and at times farcical.
if the Government had banned further interaction with the media after the
initial press conference, there would probably have been a general agreement in
Britain to draw a veil over the fact that the 15 hadn’t lived up to the
myth. But a bizarre decision was made to
allow them, unlike other military personnel, to make money from their military
service by selling stories of their “awful” experience to the media. This was presumably done with the objective
of providing further public explanation of why they co-operated with their
Iranian captors so readily. If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation, since it understandably
provoked the wrath of military personnel who had endured rather more painful
experiences of military service.
The 15, and particularly the 2 who sold their stories, were held up to
ridicule for whinging about trivia.
No maritime border
failed to get its way at the Security Council.
A statement issued by members of the Council did not condemn Iran and merely called for “an early resolution
of this problem including the release of the 15 UK personnel” (see, for example,
Associated Press report ). Unlike the EU, the Council, with Russia taking the lead, refused to take Britain’s
word for it that the 15 had been captured in Iraqi waters.
understandable. Since Iraq and Iran haven’t agreed maritime
borders in the area, how could anybody be sure?
The 15 were
serving with Combined
Task Force 158, a multi-national naval group, patrolling the Persian Gulf. Last
autumn, Stars and Stripes, a US
military newspaper, published a series of articles about the activity of the
Task Force. An article on 24 October
2006 contained the following :
“The coalition will help anyone, [Rear Admiral] Miller said,
including the Iranians. ‘But to the
credit of the Iranians, they will help other people when they’re in distress.
That’s more a part of being a mariner than anything else.’
“‘Bumping into’ the Iranians can’t be helped in the northern
Persian Gulf, where the lines between Iraqi
and Iranian territorial water are blurred, officials said. No maritime border
has been agreed upon by the two countries, [Commodore] Lockwood said.”
Commodore Peter Lockwood was the
Australian commander of the Task Force at the time.
there is room for doubt that the 15 were in Iraqi waters. This was given weight by a statement by
Brigadier-General Hakim Jassim, commander of Iraq’s
territorial waters, who was quoted by the BBC  as
there is no presence of British forces in that area, so we were surprised and
we wondered whether the British forces were inside Iraqi waters or inside
Iranian regional waters.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari,
normally a friend of Britain,
didn’t back the British claim enthusiastically.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4’s World
at One on 5 April 2007, he too emphasised that the maritime border line was
fact, that border line has been disputed and there has been some movement of
that border line. That’s why you saw
that war of maps, I would call it, between Britain
and Iranians. Our position was that,
according to the information we had, that they were operating in Iraqi territorial
waters and they have been doing these patrols for the past three years, so it’s
not a new operation. But, we have an
understanding with Iranians actually for our technical people to fix the border
line, including the Shatt al-Arab waterway.”
Note that Zebari didn’t come down on Britain’s side in the “war of
Some detentions OK
sailors and marines may have been taken into custody in waters which are
indisputably Iraqi, as the British Government insists. But, even if they were, it is a bit rich of
the Government to affect moral outrage about the unlawful arrest of 15 people
by Iran and their detention for a fortnight, when it has kept quiet about the
countless instances of unlawful arrest and detention without trial for years by
the US (often with physical abuse, sometimes leading to death in custody). Since 11 September 2001, tens of thousands of
people have been unlawfully detained by the US,
has yet to take the case of any of them to the Security Council.
And Baha Mousa is not the only Iraqi
to die in British custody. As Rory
McCarthy wrote in The Guardian on 24
February 2004 :
death of Baha Mousa is not
an isolated case. Military investigators are studying the cases of seven Iraqis
who died between April and September . Six are thought to have died in
British custody and one was shot.”
around 18,000 individuals are held without trial in US
custody at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, and Camp
Cropper outside Baghdad, compared with less than 10,000 a
year ago (see US Holds 18,000 Detainees
in Iraq in the Washington Post on 15 April 2007 ). Britain doesn’t seem to mind these
people being detained illegally and held without trial indefinitely.
unlike the 15 Britons captured by Iran, those unlawfully arrested and detained
by the US, and by Britain itself, have all been Muslim. Muslims holding British citizenship, who were
in US custody at Guantanamo,
had to wait years before the Government was persuaded to take up their case and
press for their release. Despite being labelled “bad people” by
President Bush along with the rest of the Guantanamo detainees, they were
eventually released without charge.
Muslims with residency rights in Britain
are still in US custody at Guantanamo
and the Government is refusing to take any interest in their welfare, let alone
press for their release or take their cases to the Security Council. Ironically, while the 15 were in Iranian
custody, the US released Bisher al-Rawi, a Iraqi citizen with rights of residency in Britain, who was kidnapped by the US in Gambia in 2002 and held without
charge for four and a half years. Britain
made an exception for him – and pressed for his release – because he had worked
for MI5 in the past.
Early in the
morning of 11 January 2007, helicopter-borne US
troops raided an Iranian
liaison office in Irbil
in Iraqi Kurdistan and detained 5 Iranian staff. The US
accuses them of being intelligence agents and they are still in US custody in Iraq. The liaison office has been established for
years and operates with the permission of the authorities in Kurdistan. It was about to be upgraded to a consulate.
Patrick Cockburn in The Independent
on 3 April 2007 ,
had a much more ambitious
“The aim of the raid, launched
without informing the Kurdish The two senior Iranian
officers the US
sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful
deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of
intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard, according to Kurdish officials.”authorities,
was to seize two men at the very heart of the Iranian security
The two men were on an official visit to Kurdistanduring which they met the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of
the Kurdistan Regional Government.
As Patrick Cockburn wrote:
“The attempt by the US to seize the
two high-ranking Iranian security officers openly meeting with Iraqi leaders is
somewhat as if Iran had tried to kidnap the heads of the CIA and MI6 while they
were on an official visit to a country neighbouring
Iran, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan.”
It is no surprise that Britain
has yet to express moral outrage about this US
attempt to kidnap two Iranians in Iraq
at the invitation of the Iraqi President, or about the actual kidnapping by the
US of 5 other Iranians with
legitimate business in Iraq.
Who rules Iraq?
The incident is a vivid illustration of who rules Iraq. And it’s not the Iraqi Government. Nor does the Kurdish Regional Government rule
the BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 5
April 2007, the Iraqi Foreign Minister revealed that the Iraqi Government had
been attempting to get the 5 Iranians released, or at least to get Iran
consular access to them. He said:
have been making representations and approaches to the American Embassy to
provide some access for them, for contact, for access for the Red Cross, and
also even to free them, because we believe this would help to ease
tension. We don’t want Iraq to be a battleground between the US and Britain and our neighbours. I personally submitted that request 3 weeks
ago, long before the British sailors’ case.”
Think about it. Here
is the Foreign Minister of Iraq, a supposedly sovereign state, going cap in
hand to the embassy of a foreign power to plead for the release of 5 people
seized in Iraq by the
foreign power and held without trial in Iraq for 4 months by the foreign
power. Operation Iraqi Freedom has still
some way to go.
An announcement by the US
that it was considering granting Iran consular access to the 5 may
have contributed to the release of the 15 British sailors and marines. Another factor that may contributed
was the release of Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who was kidnapped in Baghdad at the beginning of the year by
gunmen in Iraqi government uniforms.
Under whose authority they were acting is unknown. He was released and returned to Iran
on 3 April 2007, the day before President Ahmadinejad
announced the release of the 15.
As for the Irbil
5, they are still in US
custody, and it doesn’t appear that Iran has even been granted consular
access to them. Hoshyar Zebari will have to continue pleading.
Boats (and iPod) not returned
To add to Britain’s
hasn’t returned either the boats or the arms captured in June 2004 or in March
2007. Not wishing to draw attention to
this humiliation, the Government has kept quiet about it. However, the matter was raised in the House
of Lords on 17 April 2007 
by former Labour MP, Robin Corbett, now Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, who asked the Defence Procurement Minister, Lord Drayson:
“My Lords, can the Minister confirm
that the value of the boats now illegally held by the Iranians is upwards of £1
million? Can he be more specific about exactly what pressures are being put on
that vile regime to return that property to us?”
Lord Drayson replied:
“My Lords, I can confirm that the
total amount involved in the 2004 incident and the incident that took place
recently is approximately that quoted by my noble friend.”
also stole Arthur Batchelor’s iPod, which featured in
another question to Lord Drayson. Lord Waddington asked:
“My Lords, is it usual for naval
personnel to carry iPods when actively engaged as
members of a boarding party?”
To which Lord Drayson replied:
“No, my Lords, it is not.”
8 May 2007
Labour & Trade Union