British Pawns in an Iranian Game

By Pepe Escobar

28/03/07 “Asia Times” – — – The 15 British sailors and marines who were patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab – or Arvand Roud, as it is known in Iran – were not exactly indulging in a little bit of Rod Stewart (“I am sailing/stormy waters/to be with you/to be free”). They had their guns loaded. These would certainly have been fired against Iraqi smugglers – or, better yet, the Iraqi resistance, Sunni or Shi’ite. But suddenly the British were confronted not by Iraqi but by Iranian gunboats.

This correspondent has been to the Shatt-al-Arab. It’s a busy and tricky waterway, to say the least. Iraqi fishing boats share the waters with Iranian patrol boats. From the Iraqi shore one can see the Iranian shore, flags aflutter. These remain extremely disputed waters. In 1975, a treaty was signed in Algiers between the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. The center of the river was supposed to be the border. Then Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. After the Iran-Iraq War that this sparked ended in 1988, and even after both Gulf wars, things remain perilously inconclusive: a new treaty still has not been signed.

The British are adamant that the sailors were in Iraqi waters checking for cars, not weapons, being smuggled. It’s almost laughable that the Royal Navy should be reduced to finding dangerous Toyotas in the Persian Gulf. Some reports from Tehran claim the British were actually checking Iranian military preparations ahead of a possible confrontation with the US.

Western corporate media overwhelmingly take for granted that the British were in Iraqi or “international” waters (wrong: these are disputed Iran/Iraq waters). Tehran has accused the British of “blatant aggression” and reminded world public opinion “this is not the first time that Britain commits such illegal acts” (which is true). Tehran diplomats later suggested that the British might be charged with espionage (which is actually the case in Khuzestan province in Iran, conducted by US Special Forces).

Chess matters
The coverage of the sensitive Shatt-al-Arab incident in the Iranian press was quite a smash: initially there was none. Everything was closed for Nowrouz – the one-week Iranian New Year holiday. But this has not prevented radicalization.

Hardliners like the Republican Guards and the Basiji – Iran’s volunteer Islamist militia – asked the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad not to release the sailors until the five Iranian diplomats arrested by the US in Iraq were freed. They also demanded that the new United Nations sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program be scrapped. And all this was under the watchful eyes (and ears) of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

Much of the Western press assumed Iran wanted Western hostages to exchange for the five Iranian diplomats, without ever questioning the Pentagon’s illegal capture of the Iranians in the first place. Then the plot was amplified as an Ahmadinejad diversion tactic as the UN Security Council worked out a new resolution for more sanctions on Iran and as Russia told Tehran to come up with the outstanding money or the Bushehr nuclear plant it is building in Iran would not be finished.

The Shatt-al-Arab incident has been linked to an Iranian response to Washington’s accusations that Tehran is helping Shi’ite militias with funds, weapons and training in Iraq. For the record, Iran’s ambassador in Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, said there is absolutely no connection: “They entered Iranian territorial waters and were arrested. It has nothing to do with other issues.” Not surprisingly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had to take the side of the occupiers who installed him in his post: he said the British were in Iraq invited by the Iraqi government and were operating in Iraqi waters.

This doesn’t stop people, especially in the Islamic world, questioning what business the British, as an occupation force, had in the Shatt-al-Arab to start with.

From the depths of their abysmal, recent historical experience, even the Arab world – which is not so fond of Persians – sees the US-orchestrated UN sanctions on Iran for what they are: the West, once again, trying to smash an independent nation daring to have its shot at more influence in the Middle East. More sanctions will be useless as China and India will continue to do serious business with Iran.

Tactically, as a backgammon or, better yet, chess move – in which Iranians excel – the Shatt-al-Arab incident may be much more clever than it appears. Oil is establishing itself well above US$60 a barrel as a result of the incident, and that’s good for Iran. It’s true that from London’s point of view, the incident could have been arranged as a provocation, part of a mischievous plan to escalate the conflict with Iran and turn Western and possibly world public opinion against the regime.

But from Tehran’s point of view, for all purposes British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a soft target. The episode has the potential to paralyze both President George W Bush and Blair. Neither can use the incident to start a war with Iran, although Blair has warned that his government is prepared to move to “a different phase” if Iran does not quickly release the sailors.

If the Tehran leadership decides to drag out the proceedings, the Shi’ites in southern Iraq, already exasperated by the British (as they were in the 1920s), may take the hint and accelerate a confrontation. Strands of the Shi’ite resistance may start merging with strands of the Sunni resistance (that’s what Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has wanted all along). And this would prove once again that you don’t need nuclear weapons when you excel at playing chess.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007). He may be reached at

Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd

14 thoughts on “British Pawns in an Iranian Game

  1. At the end of the day the official protocol is to escort the offenders out of territorial waters. Iran did not do this.

    Just what national secrets did the Iranians think the British could discover in short range rubber dingies?

    The espionage excuse is laughable. This was a planned abduction of British servicemen, either for hostage trade or as a human shield.

    All Iran has done is give the US and the British an excuse to attack, and lost the large amount of sympathy they once had from the British people.

    The longer it goes on, the more people in the UK will want military action, playing right into the hands of Bush and Blair.

  2. Hello Ray.

    This is not the first time that the British have been involved in this type of dispute in these waters with the Iranians. British servicemen were held for two days in June 2004 after apparently straying into the Iranian side of the Arvandrud. After being initially threatened with prosecution, they were released after high level conversations between the UK and Iranian government though the British marines’ weapons and boats were confiscated.

    I don’t believe that you are in a position to say that this was a ‘planned abduction of British servicemen’.

    You are right though. This is playing right into the hands of Bush & Blair Adminstrations. The military forces are all in the vicinity. How long before this all kicks off and we see a new Shah installed in Tehran?

  3. Thanks for laying some of these points out. There seem to be too many people seeing this all as a simple black and white situation with an equally “simple” solution. I’d like to see the pressure taken off the situation and a diplomatic resolution but the worry is that each side uses the situation to further their own ends and playing to the international community.

  4. As a level headed person you have to see the propaganda of both sides. How can we go through life with such a blinkered one sided view believing every word our governments tell us? I think this week has been a great lesson in how the British propaganda machine works. Just go and grab yourselves a handful of last week’s newspaper headlines and look over them again. This situation is being milked by the British government in a way the incident in 2004 during the Iraq war wasn’t. I think the British are being directed from the US in how to maximise this incident to gain public support for a military project that has been in the pipeline since Bush’s “axis of evil” speech of 2001. How long before the US joins in?

  5. I’m sorry Tio, I have to disagree. The Iranian Navy is very small. For them to just happen to have those vessels in the vicinity, in such large numbers, can not be coincidence.

    Furthermore it was just days after a the Revolutionary Guards Weekly Paper stated:

    “We’ve got the ability to capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks, Iran has enough people who can reach the heart of Europe and kidnap Americans and Israelis.”

    That the 15 sailors were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Guards, coincidence, again?

    Also what doesn’t seem to be mentioned is that the British and Iranians formalised the borders after the 2004 incident, so there is no dispute over the waters.

    I am just glad that the hostages are now free, however Bush and Blair have their propaganda and far better than any dossier they could have cooked up. People in Britain now want the Iranians to be taught a lesson and won’t oppose any action by the Americans short of a nuclear attack. And with the Americans having just built up their naval forces in the gulf….

  6. Ray,

    Is it absolutely inconceivable to you that the British sailors crossed into Iranian waters? If so why? What makes you so adamant that the sailors did not cross over into Iranian territory. Where is your evidence?

    Were you by chance passing in the Shatt-al-Arab waters at the exact time of the incident with a map of these “formalised” borders in your hand?

    Because if not, I am afraid that your opinion can only be based on media output which in a situation like this would have come via British military and government channels. A slightly one sided source of information!

    I think that the British government handled the situation terribly. The only positive thing was after the initial fingerpointing, the British did want the situation resolved peacefully and didn’t take advantage to ignite a war that has been wanted by the US government for a long time. I believe that it is very possible that a misjudgement could have been made and that the officers could have drifted into the Iranian waters and under international laws if this does happen then the Iranian government has every right to take the trespassers in for questioning.

    Ray, if we live in a world where US planes can misjudge the enemy and open fire on and kill British servicemen by “mistake” in a friendly blitz of fire then of course it is possible that a crew of 15 servicemen could have drifted in a boat into foreign waters unintentionally.

    But no. For you it has to have been a “planned ambush and kidnap by revolutionary guards”.

    I think the actions of Mr Mahmoud yesterday were extremely honorable and the whole way through this despite the reports the 15 sailors have looked fairly well. I wait with interest to see what they have to say however I know that the British Navy will make sure that the story given by the officers follows the British position through out and also I am sure they are bound to secrecy anyway so we will never hear the truth of what happened. I just hope that one of the sailors is brave enough to speak with honesty and truth to the nation about the experience without being co-erced by the British authorities. I am sure it has been an eye opening experience for the 15 who, from what I saw with my eyes on our television screens, seemed like they had been treated very well.

    Why can’t we take what happened yesterday as a kind gesture of peace to our island from a country and president who do not want any problems with us despite our governments reactions and portrayal of the situation to the rest of the world which was extremely undignified and arrogant.

    Finally, you are surprised that the Iranians had vessels in the vicinity of their borders when there is a war taking place in the neigbouring country. Why?

    Wake up Ray.

  7. If somebody, or a group in this case, say that they are going to do something, and then do it, it is premeditated. At least to me. They also waited until the Cornwall and the Lynx were out of range and only sent two boats to apprehend the British. Then, when they were some distance from where they were picked up they were met by six or seven more Iranian boats (now in Iranian waters). If they were in Iranian waters the whole time, why didn’t all the boats capture the British? It would have certainly ensured their would have been no fire fight as then the British would have been impossibly out numbered.

    I am not disputing that the British Government has lied in the past, particularly over Iraq, or that they are capable of lying but the whole Iranian Government is a huge propaganda machine (just look at that press conference!). The British produced evidence of where they were, and of the Iranians changing their minds. The Iranians produced no evidence.

    All that is happening here is that Iraq is weak and the Iranians are trying to grab as much territory in the waterway as possible.

    Navies and air forces stray into each others territories all the time. Most other places they are asked politely to leave.

    Finally navies tend not to have FPB (Fast Patrol Boats) so far out at sea, alone. So yes it was surprising that they had so many in one place and so far out.

  8. “If somebody, or a group in this case, say that they are going to do something, and then do it, it is premeditated.”

    Where’s your evidence Ray that anyone said they was going to do anything? I am trying to dig this out of you. You talk as if this is common knowledge.

    Name your source…

  9. It has long been reported that Rupert Murdoch’s empire is girding up support for a possible US war against Iran and there are ample examples widely available to illustrate it.

    See also Iran, a Chronology of Disinformation

    Interestingly enough after going to your link I spotted this article in the same day’s paper:

    Unbelievable! Only a Rupert Murdoch publication like The Times could positively spin the results of a survey that indicates one in four Iraqis have had a family member murdered since the invasion of Iraq four years ago!:

    MOST Iraqis believe life is better for them now than it was under Saddam Hussein, according to a British opinion poll published today.

    The survey of more than 5,000 Iraqis found the majority optimistic despite their suffering in sectarian violence since the American-led invasion four years ago this week…



  10. Tio,

    It’s odd that you seem to discount completely anything that the British say on the matter and yet take anything that the Iranians say as Gospel.

    History shows us that the truth is usually somewhere between the two. The Iranians probably did treat them like that, but they were prisoners and can expect the same kind of treatment from any nation.

  11. I am just trying to counterbalance your outlook which is to discount anything the Iranians say on the matter and take anything the British say or do as gospel.

    You are right, history does often shows us that the truth is usually somewhere between the two which is why I struggle to understand your patriotic conviction. All I ask is what are your beliefs based on and it turns out it is all based on the mornings readings of the daily newspapers.

    As William Blake once wrote:

    “When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything will appear as it is, infinite.”

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