On March 23 of this year, while conducting a routine boarding operation of a merchant vessel off the coast of Iraq, fifteen British sailors and Royal Marines were approached by two speedboats filled with Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen. Though armed, the British troops surrendered to the Iranians without a fight, and were quickly taken to Tehran, where they were held captive for just under two weeks.
The capture of the British sailors raised several questions. For example, why wasn't their ship, the HMS Cornwall, within range of their operation, so as to provide cover for the rubber inflatable boats (RIBs) from which the boarding teams were operating? Why did the British helicopter tasked with loitering over the RIBs during the boarding operation leave its station? Why did fourteen armed British fighting men, and one woman, simply give in, and decide, in the words of Royal Marine Captain Chris Air, that "fighting back was simply not an option?"
Most of all, though, the question raised by that event is this: Why was the British Navy neither prepared for, nor even expecting, such a move on the part of the Iranians? For this was not the first time in recent times that Iran -- a nation that has favored diplomacy-by-hostage-taking since the revolution of 1979 -- attempted to take sailors hostage in the Gulf.
Just last Thursday, the BBC reported that a little more than two years before the episode involving the British sailors, an attempt was made to abduct a boarding party from the Australian Navy in similar fashion, and in a similar location.
In December 2004, a contingent of Australian sailors was debarking a cargo ship it had boarded to inspect, which had run aground near the maritime border between Iran and Iraq, when up to five gunboats, manned by Revolutionary Guardsmen, approached the much smaller allied force. As the heavily armed Iranian soldiers neared -- reportedly making "very overt gestures" at the sailors -- the commander of the Aussie boarding party ordered his men back into the cargo ship "and established a very credible and appropriate defensive position," according to Commodore Steve Gilbert. The Iranian forces "made a concerted attempt" "to capture the boarding team," according to the BBC report (which quoted a source within the Royal Australian Navy), but the Australians "were having none of it."
The larger, more heavily armed Iranian force was reportedly "repelled in the face of machine guns and highly colourful language," and after a four-hour standoff, the Australian sailors were airlifted off the deck of the cargo ship by an RAN helicopter. As the BBC report pointed out, "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."
However, that is not the salient point to take from this incident. The real question, rather, is why the British Navy apparently learned so little from the Australians' experience that they were caught completely off guard when Iran utilized the same tactics and attempted the same act -- and succeeded.
ALTHOUGH MANY (INCLUDING ME) EXCORIATED the British sailors for their lack of resistance, as well as for their stated reasons for surrendering (fear that "a gun battle would risk an escalation of tensions with Iran"), the fact is that many errors, both tactical and strategic, had to be made for such a small British crew to be outmanned, outgunned, and caught completely by surprise, out of range of its naval vessel and with no helicopter on station, and therefore left with little choice but to fight a possibly losing battle, or to surrender to their Iranian attackers. After three months of investigation, though, the British military just last week issued the results of its investigation into these events, officially finding nobody at fault. From the report:
The events of 23 Mar were the result not of a single failure or any particular individual's human error, but rather of an unfortunate accumulation of factors -- many relatively small when viewed in isolation -- but which together placed our personnel in a position that could be exploited through a deliberate act by an unpredictable foreign state.
Such a confluence of events, at such an inopportune time, strongly suggests that the naval commanders in the Persian Gulf took their jobs, their surroundings, and their situations less than seriously, preferring to operate as though they were not engaged in combat activities, and as though there was no threat from external foes. That attitude, and the occurrence of such an incident which resulted in the abduction of the British sailors, clearly shows that the Royal Naval force in the Gulf failed to learn anything at all from the Australians' experience in 2004.
According to the BBC report, "Britain's First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, has recently admitted there was a need for greater strategic awareness in the northern Gulf." It would be difficult to conceive of a more obvious statement. Not only did this episode demonstrate a shocking lack of tactical situational awareness on the part of the British parties involved, but it showed a lack of awareness on a much larger scale, as well, regarding the nature of the enemy in the region. As U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack recently said, the Iranian regime has shown time and again during its quarter-century of existence that it "continues to view hostage-taking as a tool of its international diplomacy." That Britain somehow lost sight of this fact -- and let its guard down while operating so close to Iranian waters, despite knowing what it knew about the recent effort to abduct Australian seamen -- is the most inexcusable aspect of this incident.
The surrender of the British soldiers, and their appalling behavior in captivity, are a different topic. Given what is now known, the real question is not why the small group of British sailors acted as they did in their surrender and captivity, but why they were put in that position in the first place.