Home > Conflict & Security, Editorial, Middle East > The Permeable Boundary of the Shatt al-Arab and Iran’s British Prisoners

The Permeable Boundary of the Shatt al-Arab and Iran’s British Prisoners

Britain’s prominent participation in the invasion of Iraq has given it claims to policing in the contested waters of Shatt al-Arab (known as the Arvand River in Iran) through its right of conquest. Britain has had a long history of involvement in the region, once having occupied Southern Iran until a strong nationalist movement succeeded in ousting it from the area. At the time when Iraq was under direct British control, Britain unilatirally, and to its advantage, drew a boundary that embraced the entire river. The waters thus remained contested.

Saddam, and the last Shah of Iran redrew the boundary, drawing a line down the middle of the river. However, with the rise of the Islamic Republic, Saddam contested the legitimacy of the boundary and declared war on Iran. Britain, the USA, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and others supported Iraq and Saddam in this war.

Saudi Arabia invested $25 billion dollars in Iraq to support its war (1). The US and Germany provided Saddam with chemical and biological weapons along with the means to produce more. The weapons were used against Iranian soldiers, civilians, and those deemed collaborators (including Kurds).

Recently, the US took Iranians prisoner within Iraq, and there has been scarce media investigation, at least in North America, of claims that those held were in fact a threat to the lives of Iraqi civilians. Greater context and a clear explanation is necessary beyond blanket official statements.

This is, only in part, the context within which the most recent detention of British marines by Iran took place.

Further background is available at Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,474518,00.html


(1) Robert Fisk, “The Great War for Civilization,” Harper Perennial, London, UK, 2006: p. 753

  1. March 29, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Dr. Ali Pahlavan, the editor of an independant newspaper in Iran thinks the capture was planned in advance as a reaction to the UN sanctions. The Revolutionary Guard has promised some sort of reaction. More on that here:

  2. March 30, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks for the link and background, Mike.

    Yes, the timing will only add to tensions, considering the talks and vote at the UN regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

    The Revolutionary Guard have become a strong faction within Iran, and they or those associated with them tend to be quite vocal about their opinions and potential actions. I’m not familiar with the general culture of their rhetoric to provide sound opinion of my own.

    Iran could be trying to draw a line and let US/UK know that there will be costs attributed to their actions in the hopes of mitigating future acts of covert operations. By taking Britons prisoner, the spotlight is on the area, and this could be an opportune moment to beging to advertise the nature of US covert operations within Iran.

    Iran could quote American officials or ex-CIA operatives who have publicly stated US covert activity is on the rise in Iran. Iran’s air space is violated by spy drones, for example.

    Though, I haven’t yet seen evidence of an organized Iranian PR campaign around lifting the veil on US covert operations taking place there.

    As for the Revolutionary Guard, they’re something to look into. I personally know little about them, mostly through personal or others’ direct experiences.

    I remember them when I was a child, in Iran. This was shortly after the revolution. They were used as moral police, to root out counter-revolutionaries, and to establish a moral order. When we travelled out of Tehran by car, there would often be preperation for mobile checkpoints manned by the Guard (called Pasdar in Iran, simply meaning Guardians). The question of, “Have you been drinking,” was a common one to prepare for as were, “Where are you coming from and going to.” My parents would run through a sometimes vocalized checklist of what objects in the car may be deemed criminal and these we would have to hide or leave behind. All I can remember is the squirreling away of wine. They could always search your car though, and the opening of trunks was not beyond possibility.

    I feared them, as an abstract. In person, I would seal my lips est my child’s mind said the wrong thing in innocense. My father would do all the talking.

    They used to be a militia, and came to their own during the Iran-Iraq war. There, they became a full blown military force and took on the role of crack troops. I believe that they now have control of Iran’s navy, are likely in commmand of most missiles, and have had ex-members successfully elected to the majlis/parliament.

    I plan on writing a profile on them after some more investigation.

  3. March 30, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    I’m in agreement about the Revolutinary Guard’s control over the navy. I’m quite certain this is the case.

    Could we be looking at a repeat of the hostage taking 1979? Will the Brits remain in custody until 2 minutes after Tony Blair leaves office? Wouldn’t that be interesting!

    Or could this be a tactic to get the 5 Revolutionary Guard members released that were taken into custody in Iraq about a month ago? Could be a prisoner exchange in the making.

  4. Stranded in Babylon
    April 16, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    You state: “Britain’s prominent participation in the invasion of Iraq has given it claims to policing in the contested waters of Shatt al-Arab (known as the Arvand River in Iran) through its right of conquest.”

    I believe this misrepresents the situation. It may have been the case in the period immediately following the 2003 conflict, and that is hinted at in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483 (2003) (see paragraph 11) (and note, even then, paragraph 1 outlines a role for all member states), but, in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1511 (2003), all member states were urged to contribute military forces to assist Iraq. Paragraphs 13 and 14 state:

    “13. Determines that the provision of security and stability is essential to the successful completion of the political process as outlined in paragraph 7 above and to the ability of the United Nations to contribute effectively to that process and the implementation of resolution 1483 (2003), and authorizes a multinational force under unified command to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq, including for the purpose of ensuring necessary conditions for the implementation of the timetable and programme as well as to contribute to the security of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, the Governing Council of Iraq and other institutions of the Iraqi interim
    administration, and key humanitarian and economic infrastructure;
    14. Urges Member States to contribute assistance under this United Nations mandate, including military forces, to the multinational force referred to in paragraph 13 above;”

    The occupation itself officially ended on 28 June 2004, when the Coalition Provisional Authority handed over to the Iraqi Interim Government. This was a couple of days before the deadline laid down in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546 (2004).

    The multinational force, which includes forces from some states (eg Japan) that had no part at all in the 2003 conflict, has continued to operate with the agreement of the Iraqi government, and under subsequent United Nations Security Council Resolutions, renewed from time to time, the present one being UNSCR 1723.

    Thus, the present activities of the original coalition members is nothing to do with any claim to “right of conquest”, but follows from the authority of the United Nations.

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