Friday, March 23, 2007

Royal Navy in the shit - sorry Shatt al-Arab 

The detention today by Iran of Royal Navy patrol crews is very serious. It is also however part of a hugely complex boundary situation so with cool heads we may navigate out of it yet.

The problem for Britain with the international boundary between Iraq and Iran along the Shatt al-Arab waterway is that it is part of a complex and unresolved dispute between Iraq and Iran. Britain as a temporary occupying power cannot legally make concessions on behalf of Iraq on this boundary issue. Royal Navy patrols working in what Iraq maps tell them is part of Iraq may well stray into waters which Iran claims as Iranian.

A particular issue is that Iran claims the boundary runs according to the Thalweg principle (that is along the deepwater navigational channel). In the 1975 Algiers accord Iraq conceded this in order to get Iranian support over a Kurdish insurgency in Iraq, then when the Kurds were suppressed for that time, reneged on the deal. The Shatt al-Arab demarcation was a central issue in the Iran-Iraq war and was unresolved by that war.

Mostly the semi-recognised Iraq-Iran frontier runs along the low-water mark of the Iranian bank of the river. I suspect that today’s dispute is in one of the three specific exceptions to that rule, probably close to the exception running from number 1 jetty in Abadan where the frontier follows the Thalweg for four miles downstream before reverting to the Iranian low-water mark.

In general article 4(c) of the 1937 Iraq-Iran frontier treaty should apply, namely that:

4.c) The fact that in the Shatt-al-Arab the boundary line sometimes follows the low-water mark and sometimes the Thalweg or the medium filum aquae does not prejudice in any way the right of user of the two high Contracting Parties (Iraq and Iran) in the whole course of the river.

Iranian ships therefore have the right to navigate though Iraqi waters unmolested.

It is the hell of a legal minefield.

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