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UNDER THE RADAR January 16, 2008

Posted by wmmbb in Middle East.

Sometimes the beat-ups ignore the salient facts. The recent reports of the argy bargy in the Straits of Hormuz between American warships and Iranian speed boats failed to report that there are no international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. This fact was at least point out by Kaveh L Afrasiabi, writing in Asia Times.(via The War in Context).

Paul Woodward goes on to note:

Let’s repeat that: there are no international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. The U.S. ships were in Iranian territorial waters exercising the “right of transit passage” afforded to them in international law by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which the United States has signed but which Congress has yet to ratify. This is why in the video of the incident, a U.S. naval officer can be heard saying, “I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law.”

However provocatively the Iranian speedboats might have been behaving, if from the outset, this incident had been reported as occurring inside Iranian territorial waters, the Pentagon’s first task would have been to educate the press and the public about some of the technicalities of international law as it applies to the Straits of Hormuz. That lesson would have sucked the air out of the story and Bush would have landed in Tel Aviv deprived of what he was clearly eager to employ in his latest round of fear-mongering rhetoric. Absent this rallying cry, there might have been a tiny possibility that he pay a bit of attention to the real concerns that resonate across the region.

Still there was a report that large capital ships, in certain circumstances, could be vulnerable to a swarm of low tech speed boats, or that purportedly was what had been demonstrated by American war games. If modern military technology is vulnerable to lower level technology, aside from the questionable utility of violence and full spectrum dominance, the war project may itself be questioned.

As John Quiggin suggests, the Iraq War has now turned into a disaster of epic proportions of murder, human suffering, and wasteful expenditure. Surely the better option. a cheaper one, would have been to buy the oil from the Iraqis at the market price. Then again if the American proxy, Saddam Hussein engaged in a bloody and long war with Iran on America’s behalf, he might reasonably assume he then could attack Kuwait, instead of been turned on by his promoter and the quislings from the South Pacific and other regions. Such is the state of international law, then as now, that the criminals responsible for war are not ever it seems to be brought to justice.


Commenter Andrew John, as comments always seem to do, forces me to investigate further. There is the question of the accepted International Law of the Sea Conventions, organized by the UN, and while generally accepted has not been ratified by the US Senate, which sets 12 nautical miles as the bounds of territorial waters. As is shown in the diagram, from Wikipedia, there are other zones extending beyond the shoreline that national states can exercise interests and rights.


The relevant sections in Wikipedia refer to innocent passage through territorial waters:

Out to 12 nautical miles from the baseline, the coastal state is free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource. Vessels were given the right of “innocent passage” through any territorial waters, with strategic straits allowing the passage of military craft as “transit passage”, in that naval vessels are allowed to maintain postures that would be illegal in territorial waters. “Innocent passage” is defined by the convention as passing through waters in an expeditious and continuous manner, which is not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or the security” of the coastal state. Fishing, polluting, weapons practice, and spying are not “innocent”, and submarines and other underwater vehicles are required to navigate on the surface and to show their flag. Nations can also temporarily suspend innocent passage in specific areas of their territorial seas, if doing so is essential for the protection of its security.

Then there is the questions of interest to the littoral states in relation to activities in the “contiguous zone”:

Beyond the 12 nautical mile limit there was a further 12 nautical miles or 24 nautical miles from the territorial sea baselines limit, the contiguous zone, in which a state could continue to enforce laws regarding activities such as smuggling or illegal immigration.

Allowing for the inherently contentious nature of any legal dispute that might arise, and the practical questions of institutional framework for adjudication and settlement, which I assume is the International Court of Justice, it does not seem unreasonable for any country to ask of another at the presence of warships in either the territorial waters, or contiguous zone, what business they have there. In a parallel case, if the roles were reversed, the United States would be acting in that way.

Andrew’s comment also raised the question of the linear distances involved. Just to get an idea of things, it is useful to look at a map:

The scale for the map:scale-medium-7.gif

So Andrew’s distance of 32 miles at the narrowest point, by this map, seems to be more correct than the 21 miles that Wikipedia attributes. Of course, this judgment depends on the definition of the shore, and whether there are islands not shown on this map. Google Earth did not seem particularly useful for this exercise. The contention in Wikipedia is supported by the text in the article:The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (A Historical Perspective) which states:

The Convention retains for naval and merchant ships the right of “innocent passage” through the territorial seas of a coastal State. This means, for example, that a Japanese ship, picking up oil from Gulf States, would not have to make a 3,000-mile detour in order to avoid the territorial sea of Indonesia, provided passage is not detrimental to Indonesia and does not threaten its security or violate its laws.

. . . A 12-mile territorial sea would place under national jurisdiction of riparian States strategic passages such as the Strait of Gibraltar (8 miles wide and the only open access to the Mediterranean), the Strait of Malacca (20 miles wide and the main sea route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans), the Strait of Hormuz (21 miles wide and the only passage to the oil-producing areas of Gulf States) and Bab el Mandeb (14 miles wide, connecting the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea).

The Wekipedia article refers to a six mile wide Transit Separation Scheme in the middle of the strait, and to the various altercations involving the Americans, including the shooting down of an Civilian Iranian airliner in 1988.

The strategic significance of the Strait of Hormuz reflects its role as the sea channel to the Saudi oil fields and for the supply of the Occupation of Iraq. Sooner, rather than later, and possibily with the remaining year of Bush, the reality of the financial drain on the resources of the American treasury is bound to catch up with fantasy. Meanwhile, while Iraq bleeds and suffers, South America is experiencing an unprecedented liberation from the Yankee jackboot.

UPDATE: 09 January 2012

Mark H. Gaffney at Foreign Policy Journal suggests a reason for the American aggression against Iran, and Israel’s concern:

The real issue is the fact that Iran has upgraded its medium range conventionally-armed missiles with GPS technology, making its missiles much more accurate. This means Iran can now target Israel’s own nuclear, bio and chemical weapons stockpiles, located inside Israel, as well as the Dimona nuclear reactor.

In short, Iran has achieved a conventional deterrent to Israel. Therefore, statements by Iranian officials that Iran has no nuclear weapons program are in my view probably correct. Presently, Iran does not need nukes to deter Israel. It can do so with its GPS-guided medium range missiles. The Israelis are no doubt gnashing their teeth over this, because they now find themselves threatened by their own WMD stockpiles, and by their own nuclear reactors, especially Dimona, all of which have become targets.

A few direct hits by Iran could cause a toxic plume, killing thousands of Israelis. A worst case might signal the end of the Jewish state.

This must be the first instance when nuclear weapons posed an existential threat to the nation that possessed them.



1. Andrew John - January 17, 2008

US ADM. Cosgriff stated the US ships were at least 15 miles from iran that means they where more than 3 miles into international waters. The straits of hormuz are 32 miles wide at the narrowest not 21 miles as stated on wikipedia, go to goggle maps and check it out. Most of the strait is more than 50 miles wide, the persian gulf is not an iranian lake and they need to learn to behave like decent human beings and not religious nuts.

2. wmmbb - January 17, 2008

Thank you for the comment Andrew.

I think you are more right about the distances than not.

And I strongly agree with you that we should all behave like decent human beings. As for the religious nuts, or ideological nuts, they I grant you can be a problem. Still we should be always talking.

In a nation of 70 million, there is bound to be rational people with an international outlook. That is a proposition that is even remotely plausible in a nation of just over 20 million people. In this case the lack of conversation is not the fault of the military, but of the political leadership, and the fault is greater on one side than the other.

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