Getting a Fix on Facts in the British Sailor Case

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The evidence offered by Britain and Iran concerning the precise position of the British sailors and marines captured by Iran is the subject of much debate. Both sides cite GPS evidence that can't really be verified. But the likeliest scenario seems to favor the British account that the sailors were in Iraqi waters, according to John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org — an organization that specializes in military and security analysis. He discusses the situation with Liane Hansen.

The heart of this crisis seems to be the "he said, he said" situation about whether these British sailors actually strayed into Iranian waters. Both sides say they have information from global positioning systems that prove their claims. Can technology give real proof about who was there?

Unfortunately, in this case it's just not going to happen. The problem, of course, is that military organizations are not in the business of collecting the sort of evidence that's going to stand up in court. And that's really what would be required here. Let's take a look at what the evidence is. The Brits have got a photograph of a GPS reading from a helicopter. Well, the helicopter was in the air earlier in the day. It was not in the air at the time of the seizure, and so that's neither here nor there as to where the British boats were when they were actually seized. The Iranians they've got a picture of a GPS receiver as well — the British receiver — showing a position inside Iranian territorial waters. Well, of course, the problem is that in order to get the British sailors into the Iranian port, they're going to have to go through Iranian territorial waters, so it would come as no surprise that they would show such a reading as well. Neither of these are really what you would call "smoking gun, introduce into a court of law" quality of evidence. These are basically photographs and you're just going to have to take their words that they show what they claim they show.

Is there any other evidence that both sides could offer to back up their stories?

Well, I think that the best that the Brits have is that the captain of the freighter that was being inspected [by the British sailors] says that it was in Iraqi water not Iranian water, so that's the independent witness that would suggest that the Brits are probably a little closer to the truth than the Iranians are. The other piece of evidence that the Brits offer is the Iranians themselves, who the Brits say originally gave one reported location for the seizure, but when it was pointed out that that location was in Iraqi territorial waters, the Iranians came back a little later and amended their position report to get them back into their own territorial waters.

Could there have been a mistake about where these sailors were?

I don't think so. I think that the Revolutionary Guard in Iran wanted to make a point; they saw an opportunity and they went out and grabbed these British sailors in Iraqi waters.

The [destroyer] HMS Cornwall of the British Navy was overseeing the operation when the sailors were captured. What was [the Cornwall] doing? Don't they have some kind of radar?

You do have to wonder what the people on the destroyer — the mother ship — were doing. There were half a dozen Revolutionary Guard motorboats — patrol craft — that were coming out of Iranian water into Iraqi water, where they surprised the Brits getting off this freighter that they had boarded. That destroyer has a surface-search radar; it would have seen what was going on. The destroyer was only a couple of miles away. All of this would have been clearly visible to lookouts on the bridge, using binoculars. You do have to wonder what the crew of the destroyer was doing, and I really haven't had a satisfactory answer to this yet.

Are there any historical parallels to this situation — and if so, how were they resolved?

A couple of years ago a few British sailors were briefly detained by the Iranians. They were released after a few days. That was a very different political situation than we have today. The tensions with Iran today obviously are a lot higher than they were back then. The Iranian government, internally, I think is under a lot more stress today than it was back then. I think that American and international sanctions against Iran are beginning to take a toll on the finances of the Iranian government. So you can imagine that this has gotten caught up inside some sort of internal power play inside Iran that's going to make it difficult to resolve.

What do you think has to happen to bring the crisis to resolution? Is there any role for the United States?

It's really hard to say. It's very difficult to see the Brits backing down. It's difficult to see Iran backing down. It's difficult to see these people coming home anytime soon.

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