British Naval Hostages In Iran– The Backstory is an event that at the time in 2007 was global news. From my perspective as Her Majesty’s Consul to Iran at the time, it was a hopelessly frustrating and humiliating experience. As a proud maritime nation, it was also not exactly one of our finest moments.
Now I had a saying at the time that whenever the Iranians got twitchy or felt threatened, they would take hostages. They had form for this and in this case they didn’t let me down.
In fact this 2007 incident was not the first time they had detained British military personnel.
In June 2004, three small vessels and eight Royal Navy personnel were detained by Iranian forces after they allegedly entered Iranian waters on the Shatt al-Arab river without permission. At the time, the story was broken when the capture was announced on state-run Iranian television. British officials only stated that they had “lost contact” with the boats, before confirming their detention.
On that occasion the men were later released unharmed, but only after being paraded blindfolded on Iranian TV and made to apologise for their role in the incident. The equipment was not returned.
So now fast forward to Friday March 23rd 2007:
Fifteen British Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel were captured by Iranian authorities, more specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at gunpoint in the Persian Gulf just off the Iraqi coast that morning.
The Royal Navy insisted that they were operating legitimately in Iraqi waters the Iranians said they were in fact in Iranian waters. This inside/outside argument went on for the duration and long after the crisis with both sides providing information showing they were in the right.
Geographically, the incident occurred near the Shatt al-Arab (Arvandrud) waterway, which forms the southern border between Iran and Iraq. Territorial and navigational control over the waterway has been a constant source of friction between the two countries that helped to spark the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
What is not disputed is the fact that the sailors and marines, from the Type 22 frigate HMS Cornwall, had been inspecting, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1723, a ship that was believed to be smuggling cars into Iraq, though it was subsequently cleared by the boarding team after inspection.
The Ministry of Defence reiterated this by putting out a bulletin late in the day stating that the Royal Navy personnel had been “engaged in routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters” and had finished their search of the suspect vessel when they were surrounded by Iranian forces and taken into captivity
My first inkling of this event was seeing it at home on Iranian TV that same evening!
Needless to say my phone started ringing and I was summoned to the embassy for a crisis meet with the Ambassador and other colleagues from the political and public affairs sections.
Bottom line, get hold of the Iranian officials at their Foreign Ministry and find out exactly what was going on and request access to the captured personnel. While I would be doing this, the Ambassador would be talking to the powers that be in London.
Now, I should have been granted access to the hostages under the terms of Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which 170 nations are party which ” requires a nation arresting or detaining a foreign national to afford the detainee access to his or her consulate and to notify the foreign national of the right of consular access”
In this case, Iran (which was a signatory) completely ignored the Convention. I was denied access despite repeated requests and it was not until the day of their release that I finally got to meet up with the sailors and marines at Tehran airport.
Several fruitless meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs got me nowhere. They were not listening. At one stage I even showed them my warrant set out on parchment and signed personally by the Queen appointing me as Her Majesty’s Consul to Iran promising to protect the rights of British citizens in Iran. No reaction at all from the officials.
Because of this, the situation very quickly escalated upwards to levels way above my pay grade, and it fell to the Ambassador to quite rightly now take the lead on this.
From that point onwards, the whole sorry saga then slowly dragged on. It was humiliating to see the hostages paraded on Iranian TV almost every night. The Iranians were pulling out all their propaganda tools. The hostages were being shown happily playing board games, having slap up meals and on a couple of occasions one of them would be standing in front of a map of the disputed waterway explaining how they had intruded into Iranian waters.
If this was not bad enough, we than had to deal with the usual regime sponsored Basij rentamob being whipped up into a frenzy and stoning the embassy on the 1st April demanding that the hostages be put on trial.
Meanwhile, the Ambassador was doing his level best to gain some traction with the Iranians and I was left to deal with the foreign press who had flooded into Tehran to cover the story. Quite frankly, they would have been better off staying in London where this whole event was now being played out at Ministerial and Prime Minister/Presidential level.
I had nothing to tell them of any relevance or substance and they soon got bored with me.
Then, out of the blue Iran’s President Ahmadinejad on 4th April held a press conference to announce the release of the captives as a “gift” to the British people. They would be released the following day. At last!
Time to put repatriation logistics in place.
Fortunately, London had also got its act together and had chartered a British Airways plane to bring them back to the UK. I also learnt that the plane would also be bringing back a large number of the British media who had been encamped in Tehran for the story.
Therefore, it was decided that I and two of my colleagues from the embassy would escort the freed hostages back to the UK. My primary task was to keep the journalists at bay and away from them on the plane as obviously they needed to be debriefed officially back in the UK first.
The next day, we drove to Tehran airport and it was here that I finally got to meet the now freed hostages. They were decked out in shiny new suits (apart from the only female) and all clutching plastic carrier bags full of Iranian goodies….pistachio nuts, CD’s, Persian candles, books and a host of other Iranian treats.
They all looked fit and well and were looking forward to going home although rather nervous as to what people would think of their actions during captivity. They asked me my thoughts, I gave no answer.
Then after much farewell bidding between the hostages and the various Iranian functionaries who were accompanying them, we boarded the plane. The party occupied the front (first/business class) section of the plane, then a curtain was drawn across the aisle to keep them from the view of the journalists at the back who were very noisy and shouting at me for access.
Also on the plane that had travelled out from the UK were a couple of military people loaded down with mysterious large duffel bags. What was in these bags became clear once we were airborne. They contained uniforms!
As we left Iranian airspace, the order went out to the sailors and marines from one of the military types that they were to get out of their shiny new suits and back into uniform before landing in UK. They all looked rather startled by this and I think the reality of their situation was beginning to finally dawn on some of them.
Whatever they felt, they all dutifully got back into uniform. It was hard to believe that each and every uniform fitted them like a glove and they all had the appropriate rank badges. Impressive. Obviously someone back in the UK had done their homework on measurements.
At last, the plane approached Heathrow much to my relief. I had managed to have a chat with all of them on the flight but myself and my two colleagues had one hell of a job restraining the journalists in the back of the plane. Throughout the flight, they kept on shouting questions and camera lens would be poked through the dividing curtain to try and get the money shot…but their efforts were all in vain.
Finally, after a smooth landing, the aircraft taxied to the heavily cordoned-off VIP area. The whole party then disembarked from the plane and off they went for their debrief, medicals and reunions with families. Myself and my two colleagues remained on the plane and then left when things had quietened down.
All manner of things happened after this. The Captain of HMS Cornwall was relieved of his command. An enquiry was set up to look into the affair but it’s conclusions were neither here nor there.
Rumours of a deal involving 5 Iranian detainees held by the US in Iraq and a freed Iranian diplomat abounded. Did George W do a favour for his old pal Yo Blair? we will never know. Of course any rumours of a deal were vehemently denied in London.
Then (in my opinion) came the disgraceful episode of one of the hostages being permitted to sell their story to a national newspaper for a reputed £100,000.
Personally, I was just thankful it was all over at my end in Tehran. Of course we would continue to protest to the Iranians about their disregard of the Vienna Convention, using the hostages as propaganda tools, the aggression of the IRGC, but knowing that at the end of day. nothing would change in the end.
So I will just leave this particular story here with a quote from British Admiral Jonathon Band who said at the time “it was not our finest hour”
Harking back to my saying about Iranians taking hostages when feeling twitchy. With this latest incident, they had now embarrassed the UK twice within the space of a few years. Then in 2016, a similar scenario was played out, this time the seizing of 10 US naval personnel by the IRGC in virtually the same area. It was as if our 2007 incident was a template for the American seizure.
But happily, the IRGC were not always so successful, just ask the Australians!
In December 2004, a boarding party of the Royal Australian Navy from the frigate HMAS Adelaide were carrying out the same mandate in roughly the same area as the British were doing 3 years later. On this occasion, the IRGC made a concerted attempt to seize the boarding party when they had just disembarked from the ship they had been searching..
On seeing the fast approaching IRGC gunboats, the Australians, to quote one military source. “were having none of it”
The Australians re-boarded the vessel they had just searched, aimed their weapons at the approaching Iranians and warned them to back off using what was described as “highly colourful language.”
The Iranians withdrew and the Australians were reportedly lifted off the ship by Adelaide’s Seahawk helicopter.
It is difficult to make comparisons. The circumstances for the Britons in March were slightly different in that they were caught so much by surprise that, had they attempted to repel the Iranians with their limited firepower, they would doubtless have taken very heavy casualties.
Also, the British were in vulnerable RHIB’s in open water while the Australians had the protection of the steel plating of the ship they had re-boarded.
UK military sources later said that what was of concern was that the Royal Navy did not appear to have taken sufficient account of the lessons of the Australian encounter nor that of the of the 2004 incident involving British military personnel mentioned above.
BBC, ITN, The Guardian, The Telegraph, forums.canadacontent.com