Two vastly different stories of what happened in the Persian Gulf near the Shatt al-Arab waterway are put forth by the British and Iranian governments. The British maintain that the HSM Cornwall was 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi waters inspecting a merchant vessel, while the Iranians claim that the Cornwall strayed 0.7 nautical miles within Iranian waters. Then, on March 24th, the Iranians changed the location of where the Cornwall was located, to which the British pointed out was still within Iraqi waters. When confronted with these facts the Iranians provided a new location for the Cornwall…one mile away from where they originally stated it was. The British countered by saying the Cornwall’s own GPS data confirms that they were over two nautical miles from the Iranian position. Both sides provided charts.
Now the thing about all those pretty charts is that they are apparently meaningless. Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and head of the U.K. Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1989 to 1992 wrote that there is no agreed maritime boundary between Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf; a statement that was later confirmed by Professor Khan of the University for the Federal Armed Forces in Munich. Nevertheless Iran has fifteen British sailors.
If Iran knew the condition of the maritime boarders why did they do this blatantly aggressive act and why take a British ship and not an American one? One answer is “well they were there;” or it could have been a sly attempt to get the five Iranians officials currently held by the US without actually directly ruffling America’s feathers. Another possibility is that the Iranians dislike the Brits even more then the Americans. In 1937 the British brokered a deal between Iraq and Iran that gave Iraq most of the Shatt al-Arab; a deal the Iranians only signed under British pressure. The Brits also helped the United States overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, thus the calls for Great Britain to “apologize” could be the Iranian way to get the U.K. to “loose face.” Finally, with new nuclear sanctions in place by the UN, as stated by Talibani, the capture of these soldiers could have been a way to strike back at the world. I feel it was a combination of all of the above.
Thankfully Britain has remained calm in this matter. (An amazing thing to do since the British Embassy in Tehran was more or less attacked by an angry mob of two hundred people.) Direct talks between the two nations have never been cut since the incident and hopefully the moderates in Iran will prevail and this will go down as a blip in the history books. But if things do not go the right way, or this was something very deliberately done by Iran, things could get messy and I would not be surprised to see the hostages in Iran for a very long time.
We still have one more, albeit unlikely, scary possibility; this all could be the start of a very dangerous gambit by a pressured Iran---whose end goal would be to establish Iranian regional hegemony. (I do not feel this is the case but there is a reason that some members of the Iranian government are called “radicals”.)