Iran May Try Shatt al-Arab 15 as Spies

Iran ‘to try Britons for espionage’-News-World-Middle East-TimesOnline

FIFTEEN British sailors and marines arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards off the coast of Iraq may be charged with spying. A website run by associates of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, reported last night that the Britons would be put before a court and indicted. Referring to them as “insurgents”, the site concluded: “If it is proven that they deliberately entered Iranian territory, they will be charged with espionage. If that is proven, they can expect a very serious penalty since according to Iranian law, espionage is one of the most serious offences.”

The warning followed claims by Iranian officials that the British navy personnel had been taken to Tehran, the capital, to explain their “aggressive action” in entering Iranian waters. British officials insist the servicemen were in Iraqi waters when they were held.

I’m not sure how seriously to take statements made on the website in question, with which I am unfamiliar. Tony Blair is reportedly quite concerned.

After a day of shadow-boxing with a notoriously slippery regime, Tony Blair is set to up the ante: the plight of the Shatt al-Arab 15 is officially a crisis and he will need the Cobra team to handle it. The clutch of VIPs will gather in an operations room several floors below Downing Street as early as this afternoon to plot an escape from a military spat that now threatens to become an international incident.


It was an understated description of the deep concern now gripping the government. Not only was Blair’s administration alarmed at the risk to the 15 military personnel, which included at least one woman, but it was in no doubt over Tehran’s ability to use their plight to make a wider point.

During a flurry of diplomatic activity in the hours after the snatch, the Iranians’ rhetoric repeatedly elevated their action, and the alleged motives of the British, to a multinational affair. It was the eve of a second UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions over Iran’s refusal to halt its programme to enrich uranium. The Shatt al-Arab 15 were, from the start, pawns in a perilous international game. “It looks like too much of a coincidence,” a senior Foreign Office insider confirmed.

The response was a no- nonsense demand for Iran to relent – and Britain freely used the international community to back up its case. Beckett dispatched the UK chargé d’affaires, Kate Smith, to confront the government in Tehran, armed with the insistence that the British sailors had been in Iraqi waters.

It would be harder for Iran to be much more isolated in the international community, as even the Russians have backed away from them in recent months. Still, sending such a strong signal that they are not responsible, rational actors makes no sense to me. Their position should be to try to force the world to take them seriously as a regional power, not to reinforce their status as a rogue state.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Face culture? Demanding shows of respect?

    It’s becoming a little harder for me to believe that this is merely an over-enthusiastic ship’s captain whose actions are being exploited by the regime for domestic political gain (my initial reaction). I still think it’s mostly for domestic consumption but it’s becoming harder to believe that it wasn’t orchestrated.

    Like it or not, serious or not, Iran is a regional power and, barring catastrophe, will continue to be such. If they start producing nuclear weapons, they’ll be a world power.

    Just heard John Bolton being interviewed on ABC, saber rattling. I don’t think that we need to do that, however good it may feel. However, I think he was correct in that yesterday’s action is probably about as far as we can get the UNSC to go in deterring the Iranians.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I have to say this is a play straight out of the Iranian radical playbook ala 1979. Interesting that Ahmadinejad was amongst those who cut their teeth in the first hostage crisis. Sometimes you stick with what you know.

  3. Jim Henley says:

    You don’t suppose the Iranians are going to put the Brits on trial as spies because they have evidence the Brits were spying, do you?

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Jim, the Brits were not spying by definition. They were in uniform. There are eyewitness reports on that.

    Whether the British ship was in Iraqi waters where it was operating under UN mandate or in Iranian waters is a matter of dispute. It’s the Brits (and our) word against the Iranians. What level of proof is required? Are you more willing to take the Iranians’ word than the Brits’?

  5. Iran did the same thing to British soldiers in 2004 when they ‘believed’ they were trespassing in Iranian waters. They captured them, but eventually released them all. The tension is higher today, but the end result may be the same.

  6. Jim Henley says:

    Jim, the Brits were not spying by definition. They were in uniform. There are eyewitness reports on that.

    That’s an odd defense against charges of “spying.” It just doesn’t compute. If an Iranian military officer in uniform meets an agent in Baghdad and they exchange documents, is he not “spying?” If a Russian soldier in uniform got caught counting planes flying in and out of a Polish base, would the uniform mean that he wasn’t spying?

    What level of proof is required? Are you more willing to take the Iranians’ word than the Brits’?

    No, but I’m not particularly less willing, after the last few years. Why would I take an official statement by the US or British governments at face value in 2007? So I don’t get Jihad cooties?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Fair enough, Jim, but you didn’t answer the question. What standard of proof do you require?

  8. bob in fl says:

    To paraphrase Pajamas Media, arresting the 15 British sailors may be a bargaining chip to return the 300 Iranians seized by US/Iraqi soldiers in recent weeks. Sounds logical to me.

  9. Jim Henley says:

    Fair enough, Jim, but you didn’t answer the question. What standard of proof do you require?

    Well, first off, I don’t feel pressed to decide the matter now or even soon. It will play out according to the dictates of power politics with the facts of the matter as secondary considerations. I’m not sure there’s even a universally accepted demarcation between “Iranian” and “Iraqi” waters along the Shatt. It’s a longtime troube spot.

    At some point soon the Iranians will have to present actual evidence that the Brits were Someplace They Weren’t Supposed to Be doing Something They Weren’t Supposed to Do. Captured logs, maybe, or GPS memory records, if the GPS in the inflatables has an audit trail. Captured maps. Captured equipment that independent experts – neither Iranian nor Coalition – agree that you just don’t need to do anti-smuggling duty. Something that would definitively impeach the credibility of Britain’s official statements. As a wild for instance, suppose the Iranians filmed the “arrests” and there was no alleged smuggler’s vessel to be boarded? (Has anyone confirmed that the Brits did board a ship that day?)

    To convince me the Iranians were right, they’d need to present a lot of compelling stuff. Confessions? Those could be coerced. Seemingly incriminating stuff like scuba gear on the submersible could simply be stray equipment nobody bothered to remove and not proof that someone was trying to swim ashore on the sly. People like me are not well-poised to know for sure that a particular kind of surveillance gear would only be appropriate for spying on Iran as opposed to doing anti-piracy or anti-smuggling duty.

    The real point, though, Dave, is that this is the kind of thing that bloggers are extremely unsuited to get to the truth of: specific incidents overseas with a major question of fact where our only “evidence” is the self-serving statements of official functionaries and the reports of journalists of all persuasions who have proven to be lazy and unreliable. The only prudent position for the observer to take is agnosticism.

    The Brits may have been doing something that could fairly be called “spying” or they may not have. The Iranians may really believe the Brits were “spying,” or they may not. The Iranians may really believe it but be mistaken. The Iranians may not believe it at all and be incorrect. You and I are unlikely to ever know.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Has anyone confirmed that the Brits did board a ship that day?

    Well, there is a first hand report.

    I’m not sure I’d characterize it as “agnosticism”. I think that a certain amount of skepticism is warranted but that simply rejecting an official statement from the British simply because it is an official statement from the British is going too far.

  11. Jim Henley says:

    Fair enough, Jim, but you didn’t answer the question. What standard of proof do you require?

    Dave, thanks for the link. It’s kind of a second-hand report – the guy doesn’t claim to have witnessed the arrests personally – but it’s still interesting. Per this report, the two ribs detained had already left the merchant ship to continue patrolling, while early reports from the Brits seemed to claim that the Iranians interrupted them in the act of inspecting the vessel, so it problematizes the first version of events. But the first version of events is usually wrong anyway – slippage on the timing question doesn’t prove the Iranian case.

    I think that a certain amount of skepticism is warranted but that simply rejecting an official statement from the British simply because it is an official statement from the British is going too far.

    To clarify, what do you mean by “rejecting” here? I put zero probative value on British or American official statements, meaning, I don’t assume what they’re telling me is true. I think that’s a kind of “rejection.” But I don’t assume that they are lying until proven otherwise either, because I figure they’ll tell the truth if it isn’t inconvenient to the bureaucratic and political imperatives of the moment, and sometimes they’ll tell the truth even if it hurts if they believe they really can’t get away with lying. Assuming that whatever they say the opposite must be true would be another kind of “rejection.” Are you talking about the former kind or the latter?

  12. Jim Henley says:

    Bah. Grabbed the wrong quote in the first instance. Please substitute “Here’s a link” in your mind.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    The former although “zero probative value” sounds an awful lot like the latter to me.

    Perhaps our difference is that I think that zero probative value is a bit too extreme.

  14. Jim Henley says:

    The former although “zero probative value” sounds an awful lot like the latter to me.

    Then I wrote unclearly, you read sloppily, or you’re confusing categories. By the former meaning of “reject,” I mean, “Their statements mean nothing one way or the other as to whether something is true.” [Call this “Reject(A)].” By the latter, I mean, “If they say it, it must be a lie.” [Call this “Reject(B).” Those are not the same thing. I hope I’ve done a better job drawing the distinction this time.

    On the matter itself, my understanding is that when you said “reject” you meant the former, and the former is exactly what I’m doing, so on your terms I’m rejecting their statements. In that case, it’s a perfectly intelligible use of “reject,” and I accept your construction. I “reject(A)” their statements. FWIW, I think I’m right to do so and you are wrong not to, but if we at least agree on what is happening, that’s something.

  15. vnjagvet says:

    Interesting dialog. Jumping to conclusions about how this will develop is not useful, it seems to me.

    I would like to believe that this is a overreach by the Iranians, but that is just a desire, not a judgment.

    I do think that Petraeus’s collection of Iranians presents a number of interesting options over the next several weeks.

  16. davod says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  17. Anderson says:

    Here’s my question: according to Kevin Drum, this was a British “routine anti-smuggling patrol” … carried out in “inflatable boats.”

    Is that less fishy than it sounds to me? I confess to zero knowledge of anything naval after 1945.

  18. Jim Henley says:

    I’d just add one thing. Maybe like Dave you’re unwilling to go to a generalized agnosticism about what Coalition spokesmen say. But it’s possible to divide their statements into different classes. This particular class of statement – What a Military Says About the Location of Its Forces During a Border Incident – has a long, well-documented history, and the history is, the Captured Team always says “Our guys were on our side of the line” and the Capturing Team always says “Your guys were on our side of the line.” I don’t recall a single such incident where the Captured Team’s initial claim was, “Yeah, our bad. Can we have our troops back please?”

    The most famous example involving US forces probably remains the Pueblo Incident. The US insisted that the Pueblo was in international waters while the North Koreans insisted it was not. The North Koreans turned out to be telling the truth – the Pueblo was over the line; what’s more, it was over the line intentionally.

    Contrariwise, a little-noted fact of last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel was that Hez claimed they captured the two Israeli soldiers on their side of the border. I poked into the matter a little and feel comfortable saying that truth was on Israel’s side in that incident; it was Hezbollah that lied.

    Point being, this is a particular class of incident that we know governments WILL lie about if they’re in the wrong on the law of it. We know our government will lie; we know hostile governments will lie. If they put forces where they’re “not supposed to be.” It’s a settled pattern. The only thing we don’t know is where the forces actually were. The opposing statements of the involved governments, by themselves, cannot clarify the truth of the situation, because it is the kind of thing governments will lie about.

  19. Matt says:

    Some of you seemed to be arguing about these ribs and the nature of their patrols. You read the article given by Mr. Schuler and you can see they were part of a patrol by the HMS Cornwall. They don’t normally name boats that are little bigger than your average weekend fishing boat. At least I’m pretty sure most militaries don’t. So the Cornwall is probably some destroyer or similar vessel and these ribs were more like a boarding party or short range patrol launched from the main ship. Which isn’t in any way different from what’s been done by navies historically. Why bring your whole big ship up against some questionable, possibly enemy, ship and risk the whole thing when you can send a little boat or two over and ask your questions that way? Think of the ribs like longboats or dinghies or other small craft powered by oars or small outboard motors.

    Somebody also mentioned some discrepancy between the official report and the word of this fishing captain. Having been in Iraq, I can tell you that the military doesn’t make a habit of giving its exact daily itinerary to the random civilians it encounters, so if the fishing captain said “they were gonna continue patrolling” he probably doesn’t know for sure those little boats weren’t going back to their mother-ship first or if they had other objectives. Personally if I was a navy commander and my big boat could navigate this river or whatever, then I’d probably get my people back to the big boat instead of sending them all over the place in their rubber rafts.

    Now, could the British guys have really been spying? Sure I guess so, if there’s something in the water that could be spied on by men in rubber boats. But in broad daylight or I guess the early morning gloom why bother? Especially after first stopping a fishing boat? Why goto all the trouble of a ruse like that? It’s best to keep those things low-profile, not stop and get a bunch of peoples’ attention on the way.

    If you wanna really villainize the British in this maybe you could say that they for some reason confused their own people into going into Iranian waters so they WOULD get captured and thusly justify some kind of conflict with Iran.

    More than likely this whole thing is just a misunderstanding.

  20. thoreau says:

    Two things:

    1) Since we’re talking about British government employees and Iranian government employees, there’s another possibility to consider: Somebody made a mistake, with either the Brits unintentionally crossing the line and getting captured for it, or the Iranians mistakenly crossing the line and thinking that the Brits were the ones on the wrong side of the line.

    I have no doubt that both sides were at the very least under orders to be close to the line. When two groups of government employees are ordered to get really, really close to a line in contentious territory, mistakes are pretty easy to make.

    2) For all I know, it may well be that “spying” is a term of art which can only refer to people out of uniform, in which case the Brits were not “spying”. But they could have nonetheless been gathering intelligence, by one means or another. Granted, the crime of “spying” wouldn’t apply, but my guess is that “gathering intelligence for a foreign power” would still be a crime under Iranian law. And we don’t know whether “spying” or “espionage” or whatever was the best English translation of the Farsi legalese that the Iranians are using to describe the activities of these sailors.

    But the legalese about spying and uniforms is moot, because this will be decided by factors other than the status of their activity under Iranian law or international law or whatever other legal code.

  21. P G says:

    The US and UK have been violating International law without any compunctions. First they invade a country without UN sanction or being in any danger (you cant claim self defence against a country half way around the world). Then they violate Geneva conventions by not taking the Iraqi army as POWs and feeding and housing them till end of hostilities. And then they go ahead and violate dimplomatic immunity by seizing Iranian diplomats from consulates in Irbil. Now they want the support of the international community in solving their spat with Iran. I say to them solve your own problems. If you thought you were too big for the international community now dont come crying mama to the international community. Same goes for sanctions against Iran or North Korea. You want to play rough go ahead but dont expect you to be granted any of the priviledges you have refused to other countries. It would be ultimate irony if the Iranians were to classify these marines as illegal combatants and ship them off to their equivalents of gitmo. ( These marines are in Iraq as part of a war not authorized by the UN ergo an illegal war so they ARE illegal combatants)

  22. Matt says:

    Don’t even get started on the UN. That’s probably one of the least useful bodies on the planet. They make all these resolutions but in the end can’t really enforce them in a meaningful way. Perhaps you heard of this little war in Kosovo/Bosnia/Herzegovina? The UN sent “peacekeepers” there to stop the genocides that were going on, but no peacekeeping was actually done, since the killings continued with the “peacekeepers” just sitting there watching it happen because they weren’t allowed to shoot anybody. Finally NATO actually did something and got results.
    As far as the war in Iraq goes, it was justified on several levels as far as I’m concerned. EVEN the WMD standpoint. It should have been the UN leading the charge but due to the lack of will or perhaps courage to get real results it took an external coalition (something like 15 countries have or have had troops in Iraq, not just the US and UK) to get Saddam out. It’s unfortunate the things that have happened since then, but you can’t really say that those things are directly or solely the fault of the coalition.
    And hey, if your beloved UN is so great why didn’t IT step in and stop the coalition from making its war? I don’t even think they tried to pass one of their useless “resolutions” against any of the coalition members. Nor did they try to put troops in the path of coalition forces.
    Fact is, nobody liked Saddam. He broke all kinds of international laws and he should have been taken out in the gulf war. Maybe things weren’t as neat and tidy “legally” as some people would like, but how many wars really even have a good reason for starting? Let alone a legal one.

  23. Dermot NUNAN says:

    The British sailors were not in British waters and those are the only waters they can claim any right to be in. The nearest thing to an official border on the Schatt Al Arab is the middle line of the navigation chanel. Does anyone believe that the US & UK smuggler surveilance only searches boats on the Iraqi side of that border? The Iranians were free to try this provocation whenever it suited them, as they did before in 2004.