The Iranian - British Sailor Hostage Situation
Over the past week, the situation in the Middle East has grown more tense as the Iranian navy overpowered 15 British sailors on two small boats operating in Iraqi territorial waters.
A little background to what led up to this standoff.
* Iran has been growing agitated over the pressure from the West to abandon their nuclear program.
* Iran has been increasingly uneasy over US and coalition actions in overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
* Iran has been actively supporting and arming the the insurgency in Iraq.
* Iran is believed to be harboring Al Queda terrorists.
* Earlier this year, 5 Iranians were captured in Iraq suspected of fueling the insurgency.
* The waterway where the British Sailors were captured, Shatt al Arab, forms part of the border between Iran and Iraq and has long been the subject of dispute between the two countries. I can remember, long before the current conflict, being briefed each time we deployed to the Persian Gulf to be careful when near those waters. Years ago, the concern was the oil smugglers paying a bribe to the Iranian Navy to avoid detection by using Iranian waters to evade our ships attempting to enforce UN sanctions.
* People are already calling into question the lack of immediate response by the British ship after their small boats were attacked. I think any such speculation is very premature. The CO of that ship had to quickly decide whether to attack an Iranian ship in Iranian territorial waters while knowing any such attack could endanger the very sailors he would be trying to free and be an act of war. Before anyone criticizes the decisions made they need to know what authority the CO had at the time. Anyone who has been in the military has a story or several of a situation getting worse while waiting for a decision from a step or two up the chain of command. I wouldn't be surprised if the ROE (Rules of Engagement) was written so tightly that the CO needed permission to take action.
Obviously, the Iranian government is not going to be particularly forthcoming about whether this was a planned event to provoke a confrontation, but that is what it looks like to me. There will be a lot of back and forth. They will claim they were just defending their territorial waters and of course deny any connection between the British hostages and the Iranian agents caught in Iraq. However, in back channel communications I'm certain the two matters will be closely tied. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. I hope the British sailors are released safely. Almost as importantly, I hope we don't sign onto any bad agreements to secure their release.
Bottom line: I don't know the current U.S. ROE (Rules of Engagement) in those waters, but we better be reviewing them and ensuring our sailors have appropriate authority to defend themselves.