When are detentions OK?  When the US does them


On 21 June 2004, Iran took 8 British sailors and marines into custody.  They had been on patrol in 2 boats on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and Iran claimed they had strayed on to the Iranian side of the waterway.  The sailors and marines “confessed” on TV that they had done so and “apologised” to Iran for this.  They were released three days later after diplomatic contacts with Iran – Jack Straw, who was British Foreign Secretary at the time, talked to the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kamal Kharazi.


On that occasion, the British Government didn’t make a song and dance in public about its military personnel being detained illegally by Iran in Iraqi territorial waters.  Since Iran held all the cards, this was a sensible attitude to adopt in order to secure their release, even if there was incontrovertible evidence that they had been detained in Iraqi waters. 


When the sailors and marines were returned, they were kept well away from the press.  As a result, the incident was quickly forgotten about and the fact that they had “confessed” and “apologised” didn’t become a matter of public controversy.


It is a pound to a penny that the Government is now wishing that it had adopted, and rigorously maintained, a similar approach when 15 sailors and marines were captured by Iran on 23 March 2007, this time at the head of the Persian Gulf, just outside the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.  There is little doubt that, had the Government done so, the matter would have been resolved more quickly. 


Instead, the Government acted in a way that ensured that the matter was not resolved quietly and quickly, denouncing Iran in public for detaining the 15 illegally in Iraqi waters and protesting about their being “paraded” on TV (which demonstrated that they were alive and well).  As if that wasn’t enough to ensure that their release would be delayed, the Government made the matter into an international incident by getting the EU to condemn Iran and demand their release and by attempting, but failing, to get the Security Council to do likewise.


Short of taking military action against Iran, it would have been difficult to devise a strategy more likely to prolong their stay in Iranian custody.


Living up to the myth

In June 2004, the “confessions” and “apologies” of the captured sailors and marines were barely commented upon, because the issue was settled quietly and quickly.  This time, the Government opted for public denunciation of Iran and elevated the matter into a national crisis.  As a result, attention was focussed on their “confessions” and “apologies” (and for their thanking President Ahmadinejad personally for releasing them) and questions began to be asked about whether this was the proper way for British military personnel to behave when captured.  While they remained in Iranian custody, the unspoken answer to this question was that their readiness to co-operate was a consequence of the outrageous treatment meted out to them by their Iranian captors.


However, when they were released, this answer was difficult to maintain.  They had not been physically abused.  If they had been, pictures of their bruises would have dominated our TV screens and newspapers ever since.  Without any evidence of physical abuse, their behaviour had to be explained by non-physical pressure – which had the unfortunate effect of making the 15 appear to be wimps.


No doubt, they behaved the way they did in order to make their captivity as agreeable, and as short, as possible.  Given the demonisation of Iran that is prevalent in the British media, it would not have been unreasonable of them to expect rough treatment if they didn’t.  Most people in their position would have acted in the same way – and so would their armchair critics back home.  But, it is not the way British military personnel are supposed to behave in captivity, according to the myths that we have grown up with in Britain in countless accounts of British military prowess.  According to the myths, captured British military personnel don’t “confess” or “apologise” for anything without having their finger nails pulled out – at least.


So, when the 15 returned to Britain, the Government felt the need to provide the public with an explanation as to why the 15 hadn’t lived up to the myth – which was why, unlike those captured in June 2004, a number of them were required to give a press conference.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t an explanation that stood up – they had no bruises and the attempt to explain it in terms of the non-physical pressure to which they were (allegedly) subject was unconvincing, and at times farcical.


Nevertheless, if the Government had banned further interaction with the media after the initial press conference, there would probably have been a general agreement in Britain to draw a veil over the fact that the 15 hadn’t lived up to the myth.  But a bizarre decision was made to allow them, unlike other military personnel, to make money from their military service by selling stories of their “awful” experience to the media.  This was presumably done with the objective of providing further public explanation of why they co-operated with their Iranian captors so readily.  If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation, since it understandably provoked the wrath of military personnel who had endured rather more painful experiences of military service.  The 15, and particularly the 2 who sold their stories, were held up to ridicule for whinging about trivia.


No maritime border agreed

Britain failed to get its way at the Security Council.  A statement issued by members of the Council did not condemn Iran and merely called for “an early resolution of this problem including the release of the 15 UK personnel” (see, for example, Associated Press report [1]).  Unlike the EU, the Council, with Russia taking the lead, refused to take Britain’s word for it that the 15 had been captured in Iraqi waters.


This was understandable.  Since Iraq and Iran haven’t agreed maritime borders in the area, how could anybody be sure?


The 15 were serving with Combined Task Force 158, a multi-national naval group, patrolling the Persian Gulf.  Last autumn, Stars and Stripes, a US military newspaper, published a series of articles about the activity of the Task Force.  An article on 24 October 2006 contained the following [2]:


“The coalition will help anyone, [Rear Admiral] Miller said, including the Iranians.  ‘But to the credit of the Iranians, they will help other people when they’re in distress. That’s more a part of being a mariner than anything else.’


“‘Bumping into’ the Iranians can’t be helped in the northern Persian Gulf, where the lines between Iraqi and Iranian territorial water are blurred, officials said. No maritime border has been agreed upon by the two countries, [Commodore] Lockwood said.”


Commodore Peter Lockwood was the Australian commander of the Task Force at the time.


It seems there is room for doubt that the 15 were in Iraqi waters.  This was given weight by a statement by Brigadier-General Hakim Jassim, commander of Iraq’s territorial waters, who was quoted by the BBC [3] as saying:


“Usually there is no presence of British forces in that area, so we were surprised and we wondered whether the British forces were inside Iraqi waters or inside Iranian regional waters.”


Even the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, normally a friend of Britain, didn’t back the British claim enthusiastically.  Speaking on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 5 April 2007, he too emphasised that the maritime border line was in dispute:


“In fact, that border line has been disputed and there has been some movement of that border line.  That’s why you saw that war of maps, I would call it, between Britain and Iranians.  Our position was that, according to the information we had, that they were operating in Iraqi territorial waters and they have been doing these patrols for the past three years, so it’s not a new operation.  But, we have an understanding with Iranians actually for our technical people to fix the border line, including the Shatt al-Arab waterway.”


Note that Zebari didn’t come down on Britain’s side in the “war of maps”.


Some detentions OK

The 15 sailors and marines may have been taken into custody in waters which are indisputably Iraqi, as the British Government insists.  But, even if they were, it is a bit rich of the Government to affect moral outrage about the unlawful arrest of 15 people by Iran and their detention for a fortnight, when it has kept quiet about the countless instances of unlawful arrest and detention without trial for years by the US (often with physical abuse, sometimes leading to death in custody).  Since 11 September 2001, tens of thousands of people have been unlawfully detained by the US, and Britain has yet to take the case of any of them to the Security Council.


And Baha Mousa is not the only Iraqi to die in British custody.  As Rory McCarthy wrote in The Guardian on 24 February 2004 [4]:


“The death of Baha Mousa is not an isolated case. Military investigators are studying the cases of seven Iraqis who died between April and September [2003]. Six are thought to have died in British custody and one was shot.”


Today, around 18,000 individuals are held without trial in US custody at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, and Camp Cropper outside Baghdad, compared with less than 10,000 a year ago (see US Holds 18,000 Detainees in Iraq in the Washington Post on 15 April 2007 [5]).  Britain doesn’t seem to mind these people being detained illegally and held without trial indefinitely.


Of course, unlike the 15 Britons captured by Iran, those unlawfully arrested and detained by the US, and by Britain itself, have all been Muslim.  Muslims holding British citizenship, who were in US custody at Guantanamo, had to wait years before the Government was persuaded to take up their case and press for their release.  Despite being labelled “bad people” by President Bush along with the rest of the Guantanamo detainees, they were eventually released without charge. 


Today, 9 Muslims with residency rights in Britain are still in US custody at Guantanamo and the Government is refusing to take any interest in their welfare, let alone press for their release or take their cases to the Security Council.  Ironically, while the 15 were in Iranian custody, the US released Bisher al-Rawi, a Iraqi citizen with rights of residency in Britain, who was kidnapped by the US in Gambia in 2002 and held without charge for four and a half years.  Britain made an exception for him – and pressed for his release – because he had worked for MI5 in the past.


The Irbil 5

Early in the morning of 11 January 2007, helicopter-borne US troops raided an Iranian liaison office in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and detained 5 Iranian staff.  The US accuses them of being intelligence agents and they are still in US custody in Iraq.  The liaison office has been established for years and operates with the permission of the authorities in Kurdistan.  It was about to be upgraded to a consulate.


According to Patrick Cockburn in The Independent on 3 April 2007 [6], the US had a much more ambitious objective:


“The aim of the raid, launched without informing the Kurdish authorities, was to seize two men at the very heart of the Iranian security establishment.  The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.”


The two men were on an official visit to Kurdistan during which they met the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government. 


As Patrick Cockburn wrote:


The attempt by the US to seize the two high-ranking Iranian security officers openly meeting with Iraqi leaders is somewhat as if Iran had tried to kidnap the heads of the CIA and MI6 while they were on an official visit to a country neighbouring Iran, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan.”


It is no surprise that Britain has yet to express moral outrage about this US attempt to kidnap two Iranians in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi President, or about the actual kidnapping by the US of 5 other Iranians with legitimate business in Iraq.


Who rules Iraq?

The incident is a vivid illustration of who rules Iraq.  And it’s not the Iraqi Government.  Nor does the Kurdish Regional Government rule Kurdistan.


Speaking on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 5 April 2007, the Iraqi Foreign Minister revealed that the Iraqi Government had been attempting to get the 5 Iranians released, or at least to get Iran consular access to them.  He said:


“We have been making representations and approaches to the American Embassy to provide some access for them, for contact, for access for the Red Cross, and also even to free them, because we believe this would help to ease tension.  We don’t want Iraq to be a battleground between the US and Britain and our neighbours.  I personally submitted that request 3 weeks ago, long before the British sailors’ case.”


Think about it.  Here is the Foreign Minister of Iraq, a supposedly sovereign state, going cap in hand to the embassy of a foreign power to plead for the release of 5 people seized in Iraq by the foreign power and held without trial in Iraq for 4 months by the foreign power.  Operation Iraqi Freedom has still some way to go.


An announcement by the US that it was considering granting Iran consular access to the 5 may have contributed to the release of the 15 British sailors and marines.  Another factor that may contributed was the release of Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who was kidnapped in Baghdad at the beginning of the year by gunmen in Iraqi government uniforms.  Under whose authority they were acting is unknown.  He was released and returned to Iran on 3 April 2007, the day before President Ahmadinejad announced the release of the 15.


As for the Irbil 5, they are still in US custody, and it doesn’t appear that Iran has even been granted consular access to them.  Hoshyar Zebari will have to continue pleading.


Boats (and iPod) not returned

To add to Britain’s humiliation, Iran hasn’t returned either the boats or the arms captured in June 2004 or in March 2007.  Not wishing to draw attention to this humiliation, the Government has kept quiet about it.  However, the matter was raised in the House of Lords on 17 April 2007 [7] by former Labour MP, Robin Corbett, now Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, who asked the Defence Procurement Minister, Lord Drayson:


“My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the value of the boats now illegally held by the Iranians is upwards of £1 million? Can he be more specific about exactly what pressures are being put on that vile regime to return that property to us?”


Lord Drayson replied:


“My Lords, I can confirm that the total amount involved in the 2004 incident and the incident that took place recently is approximately that quoted by my noble friend.”


Famously, Iran also stole Arthur Batchelor’s iPod, which featured in another question to Lord Drayson.  Lord Waddington asked:


My Lords, is it usual for naval personnel to carry iPods when actively engaged as members of a boarding party?”


To which Lord Drayson replied:


“No, my Lords, it is not.”



David Morrison

8 May 2007

Labour & Trade Union Review




[1]  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/29/AR2007032901329.html

[2]  stripes.com/article.asp?section=104&article=40008&archive=true

[3]  news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6500583.stm

[4]  www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1153012,00.html

[5]  www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/14/AR2007041401554.html

[6]  news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2414760.ece

[7]  www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200607/ldhansrd/text/70417-0002.htm