Iran’s seizure of 15 British sailors and marines who were operating in Iraqi territorial waters is the latest gambit in decades of dispute between Iran and Iraq over the Shatt Al-Arab waterway. Control over the Shatt Al-Arab triggered the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam’s use of nerve gas against Iran.
Iran has often tried to wrest control of the Shatt Al-Arab from Iraq. This boiled over into the Iran-Iraq War, which sporadically flared from 1980 to 1988. Convinced Iran’s military was in disarray following the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein tried to seize Iranian oil fields in 1980. The Iranian counter-attack was so successful that Saddam responded with at least 14 attacks of nerve gas against Iranian troops and civilians, causing massive casualties.
Using weapons of mass destruction against Iran and the subsequent failure of Saddam to renounce their use in the future led to American intelligence reports that Saddam currently had WMD, a pretext to the American invasion.
The Shatt Al-Arab is a 120-mile area where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers empty into the Persian Gulf, creating a swampy delta similar to the area in Louisiana where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Shatt Al-Arab provides access to the ports of Kuwait, Iraq and Iran. The Iraqi port is the city of Basra, a Shiite Muslim city patrolled by British troops. Iraqi control over the Shatt Al-Arab has denied direct water access to Iran’s principal oil port Abadan. Iran built terminals closer to the Persian Gulf for international trade.
The disarray is Iraqi now, which is why Iran wants to enlarge control over the Shatt al-Arab. In a part of the world where recriminations often last centuries, there is also lingering resentment of Britain for carving up the map of the Middle East. Britain has also often led an international commission controlling the Shatt al-Arab since the 1935 treaty. British intelligence MI-6 is also thought to have partnered with the American Central Intelligence Agency in toppling Iranian nationalist Mohammed Mosaddeq after he led a Hugo Chavez-styled nationalization of British Petroleum assets and replacing him with the Shah in 1954.
The Iranians have released forced confessions by some captured Britons hoping to be freed. Pro-Iranian statements did not save Americans from enjoying Iranian hospitality for 444 days. Then, as now, some parts of the Iranian bureaucracy say the hostages will soon be free; other parts say probably not.
Almost forgotten in the international community’s reaction to Iran’s abduction of the British serve personnel is the potential assignment of Britain’s Prince Harry to Basra. If 15 British sailors and marines are pawns in the dispute over the Shatt al-Arab, how much more desirable would capturing a British Prince be?