Conspiracy theorists are coming up with the standard mad ideas about the capture of the 15 British Royal Navy sailors and Marines, nabbed by Iran in the Persian Gulf while doing ordinary stop-and-search naval work. Though released and returned to Britain over the weekend, rumors are more rife than ever.
So here are the facts – you be the final judge.
Two weeks ago a small group of very lightly armed sailors and marines in two small rigids were routinely inspecting an Indian-flagged vessel a few nautical miles from shore. It was so routine that the patrolling helicopter providing nominal cover for the naval party had already headed back to their frigate, HMS Cornwall. It was situated some kilometres away and thus was unable to render any assistance.
The Cornwall had lost radio contact with the party, but was apparently told by the helicopter pilot that two Iranian gunboats were in the vicinity – still, not an unusual event in the Gulf and probably no real cause for concern at that stage.
Once they arrived on the scene, the Iranian crews (since revealed to have been members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) were reportedly quite pleasant to the members of the Naval Party.
The gunboats were very heavily armed. They had RPGs and heavy-calibre weapons that could have blown the two small British boats to bits within seconds. Soon, they became quite menacing and aggressive, and were then joined by another FOUR gunboats… so six in all (and about 50 crewmen), who then corralled boats into a circle before turning about to head up the disputed Shatt-al-Arab to Iranian territory nearby.
It's worth noting here that the Royal Navy and other coalition ships, including those of the US Navy, are under orders not to engage the Shi'ite Iranians, partly because of the tensions in neighbouring Iraq, where the British area of control is in the mainly Shia south. The marines and sailors were only armed with a few SA80s, the standard assault rifle for the British military, and a few sidearms.
They had no choice but to do what the Iranians wanted. Any other action would have been suicidal and put the lives of all 15 at grave risk given the firepower ranged against them. The British didn't take action later either, and for good reason. It’s not the retaking of the Falkland Islands, but simply a waterborne peace-keeping and security mission.
Some conspiracy theorists thought it unusual that the British had their "green beret" special forces "commandos" on the rigids (and who obviously knew exactly what they were doing in going with the Iranians and were specially set up to do so to raise tensions that would serve as an excuse for an attack on Iran). That’s a lot of bunkum.
While the Royal Marines are certainly an elite force, nearly all except for band members also wear the "commando" patch. Their basic training includes commando training and is acknowledged to be the longest and most intense infantry training course in the world: a total of 32 weeks. Once they have completed it, they are entitled to wear the patch and the marines' green beret. So they are not really special forces soldiers at all in today's parlance. My guess about the whole thing: the officer in charge of the Marines realised the party was massively outgunned and took the sensible course of action. That they are alive today is testimony to his clear-headedness.
As for the British claim that they were in Iraqi territorial waters, no doubt they were spot on, and the co-ordinates publicly given were accurate and did indicate they weren't in Iranian territory. It's interesting too, that the first set of co-ordinates given by Iran, and quickly changed a few days later, also put the British in Iraqi waters.
The problem here is, according to whom? Iran and Iraq have long disputed the border in this stretch of water, and agreements between the two thrashed out in the past have been ripped up by both parties.
Perhaps the final word on that issue should go to Commodore Peter Lockwood of the Royal Australian Navy. He is the leader of Task Force 158, the Coalition's fleet in the north Gulf. And, as he has succinctly pointed out, there is no agreed maritime border …
And there's also nothing new about Iranians capturing sailors on routine stop and search duties, either. In 2004, six Royal Navy personnel were taken and paraded before the cameras in Tehran in similar circumstances. What no-one watching the drama on TV knew at the time was that they had also been subjected to a number of mock executions. You know, the ones where you only know it's mock when you hear the empty click and it doesn't blow your brains out.
Time will tell as to whether we learn that the party released this week was subjected to the same kind of treatment, and given that they appeared to be reading scripted statements, you'd have to say they were at least mistreated by their captors.
Rather than trying to find excuses to attack Iran, the truth is the U.S.-led coalition is looking for reasons not to – despite the kinds of provocations from Iran that we've seen these past few weeks, and others that include the training and arming of terrorists throughout the Middle East, including Iraq.
That's why British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood his ground and refused to be conciliatory. There is nothing to be conciliatory about: British personnel were taken, and if everyone subsequently refused to call them hostages, I say that's just semantics.
There's a bit more to it all, though. In January, six Iranian "diplomats" were captured by U.S. forces in northern Iraq, and one other held in southern Iraq was released last week just before the release of the British sailors. The U.S. has also announced that consular access would be given to the six held up north.
Perhaps that's the real reason for the whole sorry incident: a cynical decision by Iran to use the lives of the 15 as bargaining chips.
It seems to have worked, though, and with Iranian President Ahmadinejad saying he was "pardoning" the naval party and freeing them as a gift to the British people, he's certainly scored a PR coup of sorts. But what I don't notice in the aftermath is a build-up of coalition forces spoiling for a strike on Tehran. Anyone who believes that will happen, given the current debacle the coalition is embroiled in right now in Iraq, is living in la-la land.
Yes, the Iranians are like blow flies and are annoying the U.S. no end by getting up the noses of the current administration. But they do have a history, and the coalition is looking for ways to leave the region rather than blow the living shit out of Iran as well.