Former British Ambassador Craig Murray has suggested what would seem to be a sensible solution to the spiraling crisis in the Gulf: The Brits simply admit that the maritime boundaries are not at all clear in the Gulf; therefore both sides may have grounds for believing their positions are correct. Only problem is it's hard to imagine Tony Blair being willing to take that route.
Here are some excerpts from Murray:
"There is no agreed maritime boundary between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf. Until the current mad propaganda exercise of the last week, nobody would have found that in the least a controversial statement.
"Let me quote, for example, from that well known far left source Stars and Stripes magazine, October 24 2006.
'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," Lockwood said.'
"That is Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Lockwood. He is the Commander of the Combined Task Force in the Northern Persian Gulf.
"I might even know something about it myself, having been Head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1989 to 1992, and having been personally responsible in the Embargo Surveillance Centre for getting individual real time clearance for the Royal Navy to board specific vessels in these waters.
"As I feared, Blair adopted the stupid and confrontational approach of publishing maps ignoring the boundary dispute, thus claiming a very blurred situation is crystal clear and the Iranians totally in the wrong. This has in turn notched the Iranians up another twist in their own spiral of intransigence and stupidity.
"Both the British and the Iranian governments are milking this for maximum propaganda value and playing to their respective galleries. Neither has any real care at all for either the British captives or the thousands who could die in Iran and Basra if this gets out of hand. ....
"It is essential now for both sides to back down. No solution is possible if either side continues to insist that the other is completely in the wrong and they are completely in the right. And the first step towards finding a peaceful way out, is to acknowledge the self-evident truth that maritime boundaries are disputed and problematic in this area. .....
"That is the way out..... The international community needs to put heavy pressure on both Britain and Iran to stop this mad confrontation...."
That's Murray's suggestion.
Sounds very sensible. The problem though is that the rhetoric has become so overheated. Can't quite envision Tony Blair stepping out of No. 10 to announce, , "Well, yes, maybe the Iranians have a point. It is a messy issue all around. Sorry about that. Now can we have our sailors back." But who knows?
So far the Iranian government seems to be focusing on the question of territorial waters, but there may be a second issue underlying this whole affair: Did the Revolutionary Guards sieze the British sailors in order to ultimately exchange them for their five fellow IRG officers who were captured by the U.S. in Northern Iraq last January?
If so, the dispute becomes incredibly tangled.
The Revolutionary Guard are undoubtedly also making use of the British hostages to strengthen their political position in Iran. Just as Iranian radicals made use of the American Embassy hostages back in 1979-1980 to undermine the more moderate elements in Khomeini's revolution.
In fact, you can bet that the Brits and their American allies have been examing the feasibility of snatching the 15 seamen from the hands of their captors-hoping for better results than Jimmy Carter's failed attempted in 1979.
The way the rhetoric is heating up though, there is no way this current dispute can drag on as long as that earlier crisis without a possibly disastrous resort to violence.