I’ve been in London for the past week on business. This is where I was born and spent a good portion of my life, so I admit right at the beginning that I’m very partial to the United Kingdom. However, despite the blue skies and unusually warm weather that we’ve been having for the past few days, it hasn’t been an easy time to be over here.
Although the sunshine has produced the usual crowded parks and busy sidewalk tables outside the pubs, the country is preoccupied with the recent Iranian hostage-taking of 15 U.K. sailors and marines from Iraqi territorial waters in late March.
The short version of this situation is that the U.K. contingent was carrying out its United Nations-approved remit to prevent smuggling in the waters off the Iraqi coast. They were finishing an inspection of an Indian-flagged vessel in Iraqi waters near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway when they were essentially jumped by patrol boats operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC).
The HMS Cornwall, the sailors' and marines' home ship, was at that time some 10 to 11 miles from the inspection site. There was no air cover for the boarding party, as the helicopter (in this case a Lynx) had returned to the HMS Cornwall after the boarding party had started its routine anti-smuggling inspection of the vessel.
These issues will undoubtedly be reviewed and subjected to significant armchair quarterbacking by suitable review boards after the resolution of this matter. More on that later.
The 15 sailors and marines, operating out of two inflatables, were first approached by an Iranian patrol boat that reportedly displayed friendly overtures. In my limited sailing experience, friendly sailing overtures usually involve waving bottles of rum and possible incidents of mooning. I suspect this was not the case with the IRGC boat.
The one IRGC patrol boat was quickly joined by several others (apparently not identified or reported on by HMS Cornwall radar). The Iranian sailors then turned hostile and explained in the international language of pirates that they were taking the U.K. personnel hostage and would escort them into Iranian waters as their prisoners.
Here we pause for a technical note. Although there will inevitably be those irritating citizens of the United Kingdom, the European Union and even the United States, who always seem to take the contrarian view (because of course they consider the U.S. and U.K. governments to be evil incarnate), these sailors and marines were in Iraqi territorial waters.
They were indeed close, within a mile or so, of what is considered to be Iranian waters, but as the saying goes, close is generally only good in horseshoes and hand grenades. The IRGC crossed into Iraqi waters to carry out a premeditated operation.
They clearly were waiting for the suitable opportunity and saw their chance with this lightly armed contingent of U.K. sailors, within a mile’s striking distance of Iranian waters, far from their home ship and lacking any top cover.
Anyone who thinks the Iranian patrol boat members acted on their own, in the spur of the moment without authority from Tehran, is residing in a lovely, naïve world where fairies and unicorns prance about and no one ever says an intentional cross word to anyone.
The IRGC personnel would not have strapped on eye patches and donned swords and shoulder-fired parrots without someone within Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s office saying “go,” or “aargh, go matey” in this case.
After sailing back to an Iranian port with the prisoners (aka hostages), the crack IRGC public relations department displayed its map-reading skills by publicly announcing the GPS coordinates where they allegedly picked up the sailors and marines in Iranian waters.
Slight problem, Sinbad, the GPS coordinates as provided by the Iranians, when plotted on a map, were in Iraqi waters. Not to be deterred by an irritating cartography snafu, the IRGC issued a second set of GPS coordinates, noting that “… we’d like to report that the individual who reported the first set of GPS coordinates has recently been transferred to a new position and is unavailable for comment.
Let’s all look at the new GPS coordinates and move on, shall we? The revised GPS coordinates, when plotted, landed squarely in Iranian waters. It’s surprising that the second set of coordinates didn’t actually register as being in downtown Tehran.
At this point, you might ask yourself: “how come the U.K. sailors and marines were operating on their own, lightly armed and far from support, so close to Iranian waters, when we all know that the Iranian leadership has been growing increasingly tense and unstable?”
That would be a good question.
The Iranian hardline leadership, led by everyone’s favorite hardline leader, Ahmadinejad, has been ratcheting up its saber rattling over the past several weeks in reaction to the West’s efforts to prevent Tehran from pursuing a nuclear program that could lead in the future to Ahmadinejad exchanging the saber for a nuclear weapon.
For those of you wondering, saber rattling is nothing compared to nuke rattling.
A couple of weeks ago, before the incident, it was reported in the U.K. media that Tehran had threatened to kidnap "a nice bunch of blue-eyed, blond-haired officers.” Hmm. There’s a clue.
In terms of historical precedent, in 2004 the Iranians did the same thing, grabbing U.K. sailors, claiming they were in Iranian waters and then parading them on television. At that time, the Iranians even staged a mock execution of the U.K. sailors.
They were released after three days. I might point out that those were different times, and Ahmadinejad is a different type of leader. The Iranian hardliners are less inclined to resolve the current hostage situation as quickly as they did in 2004.
Aside from the questions over the U.K. navy’s tactics in terms of cover for boarding parties, it is also unclear why the sailors and marines did not move to defend themselves at the point where the IRGC patrol boat members displayed their intentions.
I would not venture into speculation on this question… there have already been numerous blow-hards who have blustered about how they, put in the same situation, would have loaded the canons and immediately fired upon the Iranians. OK, fellas, nothing like displaying your courage while sitting in your easy chair trying not to dribble beer on your pizza.
It is true that, statistically, the best opportunity to thwart a hostage-taking event is as the event initially unfolds. Your chances of besting the hostage-takers and making an escape decrease once you’re in their control and moving deeper into their home turf.
It is also true that the decision to act or remain passive needs to be taken very quickly and is based on the rapid assessment of fast-unfolding events under extreme pressure. When there are numerous people involved, such as with the 15 U.K. sailors and marines, the difficulty of the split-second decision-making is compounded by the readiness, condition, location and situational awareness of all the team members.
So, while I think it is fair game to look at the U.K. navy’s overall tactics and procedures for shipboarding, given that the Iranians took advantage of what appears to be the HMS Cornwall’s low situational awareness, it is not cricket (OK, I’ve been in London for over a week) to take shots at the sailors and marines who are now sitting in Iran wondering about their fate.
As of this column, their fate remains up in the air.
The Iranian authorities have been somewhat inconsistent in their public declarations… veering from possibly conciliatory to threatening and aggressive. This could be an indication of disputes within their hierarchy over the appropriate course of action.
Frankly, Ahmadinejad reminds me of a toddler who, after having done something wrong, throws a tantrum when called out.
The Iranians engineered this crisis and now are whinging because Britain is complaining loudly about their bad behavior. He and his cronies are publicly beating their chests and crying that the United Kingdom should apologize immediately for invading their waters.
Britain is looking for a diplomatic solution without having to apologize for something they didn’t do. A military solution, despite the cries from various armchair Rambos, doesn’t exist. At least not a solution with a decent chance of success.
Some have suggested we increase the economic sanctions on Iran. That would probably have the desired effect over a period of time (during which the sailors and marines would continue sitting in Iran) but that would require the clear and determined cooperation of countries such as Russia, China and certain EU members. Good luck with that.
As an example, what is the likelihood that Russia’s President Putin will become magnanimous enough to put the welfare of the U.K. military personnel and the good of the international community ahead of his own economic concerns and agenda?
Nevermind that Russia and China have a thriving business relationship with Ahmadinejad… Britain has been unable to get the United Nations to go along with issuing a harsh statement against Tehran’s actions.
British diplomats tried to get the United Nations to approve a statement that would declare that the world body “deplored” the taking of the sailors and marines. After much debate, the United Nations refused to use the word “deplore,” instead agreeing to note its “grave concern” over the situation. That should do it.
While a military solution is not plausible, is it unrealistic to expect that the international community could show some backbone and stand up to the Pirates of Tehran?
That, me mateys, is just my opinion. I look forward as always to hearing yours. Send your thoughts to email@example.com.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, and appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker also serves as a script consultant and advisor within the entertainment industry, lending his technical expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," and the major motion pictures "Proof of Life" and "Spy Games."