TOPICS > Nation

Britain Asks U.N. for Help in Releasing Sailors from Iran

March 29, 2007 at 5:40 PM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Tensions escalated today over the Iranian seizure of 15 British sailors and marines today with the televised release of the Iranians’ video of last Friday’s operation.

Also today, the Iranian foreign minister pulled back his government’s earlier promise to release the sole female British crew member.

Meanwhile this evening, the U.N. Security Council adopted a British-backed statement calling for the release of the crew members.

The crisis erupted last Friday, when the Iranians seized two small boats carrying crewmembers of the HMS Cornwall. They’d been inspecting an Indian merchant ship in the Persian Gulf right outside the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.

Tehran insists the crew was in Iranian waters; the British say they were in Iraqi waters.

British ministry of defense officials yesterday released the coordinates of where they said the British crew was: 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters.

The British also alleged that the Iranians on Saturday gave them coordinates that actually put the crew inside Iraqi waters. Then, when the British pointed that out, they say, the Iranians presented new coordinates on Monday that put the craft inside Iranian territory.

There are also dueling claims of GPS evidence. The British released this photo of a GPS device they say was in a Royal Navy helicopter hovering over the Indian merchant ship around the time of the incident. The Iranian video today includes this frame of a GPS device that the Iranians say belonged to the British crew and proves the Iranians’ point.

Yesterday, Iranian television broadcast this video of the captives, including an interview with the female sailor, supporting the Iranians’ version of events.

FAYE TURNEY, Captured British Sailor: Obviously, we trespassed into their waters.

MARGARET WARNER: In the House of Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced the airing of the video and said Britain is freezing relations with Iran until this is resolved.

TONY BLAIR, Prime Minister of Britain: It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure that the Iranian government understands their total isolation on this issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani denounced the British approach.

ALI LARIJANI, IRANIAN NEGOTIATOR (through translator): The British leaders must be aware that, when they violate the national integrity of a country, it should be dealt with in accordance with international regulations. They cannot trespass and then try to get that country to ignore the aggression by propaganda and misusing of the international organizations.

MARGARET WARNER: But in an interview today with ITN, Blair maintained a very tough line.

TONY BLAIR: We just keep making it very clear to the Iranian government that this is not a situation that can be resolved by anything other than the unconditional release of all our people.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, two U.S. aircraft carrier groups are conducting exercises in the Persian Gulf. In Washington, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the ships “are not there to provoke any kind of conflict with Iran.”

The current situation

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
You see this almost mood of schizophrenia out of Tehran, that on one day, they're talking about one thing, a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue, and then another day you see the taking of British sailors detained.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on this standoff and why tensions have ratcheted up so rapidly, we turn to Ian Cuthbertson, a former analyst in the British Foreign Office. He's now a director of the Counterterrorism Project at the New School's World Policy Institute in New York. He's a dual British and U.S. citizen.

Karim Sadjadpour, who is heading up a new Iran initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he holds Iranian and American passports.

And John Pike, the director of, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes military and security issues.

Welcome to all three of you.

So, Karim Sadjadpour, why is the Iranian government now, six days after this event, insisting on continuing to hold these captives and doing things like airing the video?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Sure. It's a great question, Margaret. And I think that the Iranians really are in a delicate position right now. They feel very much under siege.

I think, on one hand, they don't want to have confrontation with the United States, certainly not military confrontation, and they are very wary of going into political and economic isolation.

On the other hand, they're concerned that, if they compromise in the face of pressure or they compromise or they acquiesce as a result of U.S. pressure, it's going to actually encourage more U.S. pressure, it's going to project weakness.

So this is why you see this almost mood of schizophrenia out of Tehran, that on one day, they're talking about one thing, a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue, and then another day you see the taking of British sailors detained.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ian Cuthbertson, why are the British so -- I don't want to say quickly, but there haven't been many days that have elapsed -- ratcheting up both the rhetoric and the pressure at the U.N.?

IAN CUTHBERTSON, World Policy Institute: Because the British believe firmly that they're right. They have the GPS information that backs up their position, and they don't want to be seen to be caving into blackmail. Tony Blair is at the end of his prime ministership, and he doesn't want to go out with a massive failure against the Iranians.

Contradictory GPS evidence

John Pike
The that nobody went into this expecting that they were going to have to produce courtroom-quality evidence to back up their claims.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said they claim to have this evidence of where these two small craft were. At this briefing yesterday at the British Defense Ministry, what actual documentation did they produce to back up the coordinates that they released, saying, you know, "Here's where the ship was, the boat was"?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: They showed the GPS coordinates of a helicopter that was hovering over the Indian ship that had been searched. And that Indian ship had been anchored in that position for several days, from the Friday and several days going forward. And the ship's captain has admitted he was in Iraqi waters; he was nowhere near Iranian waters.

MARGARET WARNER: And what evidence have the Iranians produced to back up their claims they were in Iranian waters?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Yes, well, I think Iran actually they -- as we saw earlier, they released a satellite video showing that...


KARIM SADJADPOUR: The GPS. Yes, the GPS showing the ship was actually in Iraqi waters, but later was described that they were actually -- I'm sorry, that they were in Iranian waters, and later it was found out that they were, indeed, in Iraqi waters. So in terms of concrete evidence, I think the Brits have put forward much more than the Iranians have.

MARGARET WARNER: So, John Pike, you're the expert in this. In this era of GPS technology and satellite imagery, why hasn't someone just come up with definitive proof?

JOHN PIKE, Well, a slight correction to begin with. We're for-profit, not nonprofit.

But we've been working on GPS for quite some time, and the problem, of course, is that nobody went into this expecting that they were going to have to produce courtroom-quality evidence to back up their claims.

The Brits have GPS data showing where the helicopter was; that doesn't tell you where the small patrol boats were. Iran is holding up a GPS receiver that has coordinates from inside Iranian waters. But, of course, in order to get the Brits from wherever they were to begin with to the port, they're going to have to enter Iranian waters, and that's going to give you those coordinates.

And the problem with all of this, of course, is that they weren't recording all of this in real time. And even if they had been recording it in real time, it can all be faked. You're not going to have something that's going to be foolproof like, say, a voting machine.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but explain that. The Brits said that these two small crafts, at least one of them had a GPS device, and it was feeding data non-stop back to the mother ship, the Cornwall. Why wouldn't there be a data print out of that, I mean, a paper print out, just...

JOHN PIKE: Or a recording, or a data recording.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, or a recording.

JOHN PIKE: Well, in principle, you would have to ask why they weren't doing that. In practice, any of these military operations, they're going to accumulate an enormous amount of data, most of which is going to be of no operational significance whatsoever if you are recording it.

The Americans in major combat operations in Iraq accumulated an enormous amount of data. You have more and more of that happening, but still you can't write down everything.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what about satellites? There are both intelligence and commercial satellites; this is a very important part of the globe.

JOHN PIKE: Well, it's also a very small part of a very big planet. If you think about this small field of view, the satellites that would be up there, you have some satellites that look over large areas. They're not going to be able to see things small like these boats. You have satellites that can see small things like boats, but they're taking very small pictures.

The odds that any of these satellites are going to be looking at that location at that precise time -- there's a reason that you never hear of crimes being solved by satellite imagery. The probability of catching anybody in the act is just too remote.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, radar. I mean, again, this is a very busy part of -- very busy waterway. You've U.S. ships; you've got British ships.

JOHN PIKE: Well, you would imagine that possibly the Cornwall's surface tracking radar, maybe a traffic control radar somewhere in the area, might have been tracking this.

The problem, of course, these small boats very close to the water, they're not going to have a big radar signature to begin with, hard to pick up at any considerable distance. Again, not necessarily the sort of data that there's going to be a permanent record of.

Politics and diplomacy

Ian Cuthbertson
World Policy Institute
I think there's no interest in London in humiliating the Iranians, and they would be happy to accept the release of the British sailors and marines, and say...we have to work for better cooperation in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so if this is not going to be solved by technological proof, which I think John Pike has just established...

JOHN PIKE: Probably not.

MARGARET WARNER: ... then we're moving back to politics and diplomacy.

So let me ask you, Ian Cuthbertson, what do the British hope to achieve by going to the U.N.? And today they got this statement signed off by the Security Council. What are they trying to achieve here?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: This is to give leverage against the Iranians, but also, going forward, they can go to the E.U. now with a resolution from the U.N. and say, "We need to impose sanctions against Iran, economic sanctions, and we have a U.N. resolution to back up our position."

MARGARET WARNER: Though the resolution doesn't entirely endorse the British position.

IAN CUTHBERTSON: No, but it's more British than it is Iranian. And the way the British will spin it is that this endorses the fact that these people are being held illegally and should be released immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Karim Sadjadpour, from your understanding of what goes on in Tehran, will it work that way?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I don't think so. I don't think there will ever be a situation where Iran will release these sailors and say, "Actually, we were wrong. These sailors were actually in Iraqi waters, and we were wrong to take them, and we apologize." Iran doesn't operate like that.

It's going to -- we're going to have to find a solution where both sides can save face. For Iran, saving face is very important.

MARGARET WARNER: So how long do you think the Iranians intend to drag this out? What is their end game, or isn't there one?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Sure. I'm not sure if the Iranians themselves know what their end game is. We've had situations in the past with the British sailors being detained in 2004; they were released three days later without incident.

But as I said, again, in my opinion, this is much more an act of desperation rather than provocation. Iran feels under siege. There's U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, Iranian officials being detained in Iraq, and the sanctions of the U.N. Security Council, and they want to show to the West that, if you want to escalate, we can reciprocate. And it's a lot easier to act against the British without fear of repercussions.

MARGARET WARNER: So what kind of thing would let them save face? Is there some kind of quid pro quo?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think that, in the end, we may see some type of resolution whereby the British say or the Iranians say that these sailors mistakenly went into Iranian waters, it was all a mistake, and all of us should work together, the British, the Iraqis and the Iranians for maritime cooperation. But I think we will never see a situation whereby Iran says, "It was our fault."

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ian Cuthbertson, do you think there's a chance that Tony Blair would go for a resolution like that, that let everyone save face?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: I think there's no interest in London in humiliating the Iranians, and they would be happy to accept the release of the British sailors and marines, and say this was a humanitarian gesture, and we have to work for better cooperation in the future. That way, there's no admittance of blame on any side.

MARGARET WARNER: But you don't think that the Blair government would be willing to do what Karim Sadjadpour just suggested, which was to, in fact, say, "Oh, I think they might have strayed," I mean, to go that far?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: I see no possibility of that whatsoever. They have firmly nailed their colors to the mast that they have the data. This was not a mistake. They were in Iraqi territorial waters, and the Iranians were acting illegally.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, on that point, Ian Cuthbertson, there's been some talk about, you know, these Iranian, whether they were diplomats or intelligence operatives, seized in Iraq, and just some pundit-types have been suggesting that, well, perhaps the Iranians wanted to arrange some sort of a trade. Do you see any appetite in Britain for doing that?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: No, the British are not Italian. They don't make deals to release hostages. It's possible that, if the sailors were released, then a few weeks and months from now the Iranians may be released, but I don't see a quid pro quo situation.

Public opinion in Iran, Britain

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
I imagine that the majority of Iranians right now are not really weeping inside for these British sailors.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Karim Sadjadpour, what about public opinion and the press in Iran? How is that playing there?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, it's interesting, the dichotomy, because, internationally, Iran has awful public diplomacy, so it's taken as a given that this ship was, indeed, in Iraqi soil and Iranians were in the wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: Internationally?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: But domestically -- exactly, internationally. But domestically within Iran, there's a long history of kind of contentious relations between the British and the Iranians, and there's this benign mistrust domestically vis-a-vis the British and Iran.

So I imagine that the majority of Iranians right now are not really weeping inside for these British sailors. That being said, this is a country which experienced an eight-year war with Iraq. They're under intense pressure, so no one romanticizes...

MARGARET WARNER: On the nuclear issue.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: ... on the nuclear issue -- no one romanticizes about conflict, about militarization. So I would imagine the average Iranian will want to just see this issue rest as soon as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ian Cuthbertson, what kind of pressures -- how is this playing in the press in Britain? Is the Blair government under any kind of pressures there?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: The British press can become very jingoistic in these situations, and it has. The major complaint is that the Blair government hasn't been strong enough, and they have to be more robust in dealing with the Iranians, and that's where the idea of economic sanctions comes in. There's no appetite for military action against Iran, but they certainly want to ratchet up the pressure.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: That they want to hit the Iranians where it hurts, in their pocketbooks, and show that there are consequences to doing this to British sailors, that this is not the situation of June 2004, where the British apologized and got their sailors back. This time, they intend to dig their heels in. And if the Iranians want to play games, the British are going to play, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: But your point is they'd have -- they'd want to get the whole E.U. to go along with it?

IAN CUTHBERTSON: In the first instance, it will be British sanctions, but they will go to their E.U. partners and say, "This is a prime example of where Europe should act together. That is clear case of illegal action on the international stage. And if the E.U. common defense and security policy means anything, you have to back us up on this."

MARGARET WARNER: So finally, very quickly, what chance do you think there is, Karim Sadjadpour, that this may head for military confrontation of some kind?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I don't think it will head for military confrontation, simply because the U.S. doesn't want military confrontation. The Europeans certainly don't, and Iran doesn't, so hopefully cooler heads will prevail.


IAN CUTHBERTSON: I don't see any chance of a military confrontation here; I think it's much more likely to be economic and political.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ian Cuthbertson, Karim Sadjadpour, and John Pike, thank you, all three.