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Iran/U.K.: Expert Discusses British Sailors' Apparent Cooperation With Iranian Authorities

PRAGUE, April 2, 2007 -- Iran's state-run media say all 15 British naval personnel and marines being held by Tehran have confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters. Previously, Iranian television showed four of the Britons saying they had entered Iranian territory without permission when they were detained on March 23. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc asked Charles Heyman of the London-based Jane's Information Group if military personnel are supposed to follow certain protocol when they are detained by foreign authorities.

RFE/RL: This is the second time in recent years that U.K. personnel have been detained by Iran. Is this case different from the incident in 2004, when eight British servicemen were seized after allegedly straying over the maritime border?
Charles Heyman: No, I don't think it's any different this time. There is a dispute over where the border actually runs. The British say the border runs along one line, the Iranians say the border runs along another line. It's possible that both sides think they are in the right, and both sides firmly believe that what they are saying is correct. I mean, it really does need some international arbitration to actually, at long last, delineate exactly where this border runs.
RFE/RL: What rules must the naval personnel follow in a situation like this?
Heyman: This is a very, very difficult one for these naval personnel. They are not prisoners of war. When you are given resistance-to-interrogation training, it really is [intended] for prisoners of war. These sailors have been taken, basically, in a civil dispute, a case that normally goes before normal courts. They've been arrested, as opposed to having been captured. And one of the problems here is that if you adopt the stance that you normally do when you're a prisoner of war -- number, rank, and name -- in some legal codes, and of course in the Iranian code specifically, the inability of the person who's been detained to explain why they were there and what they were doing is, in fact, an offense in itself -- an admission of guilt. So these people are in a very difficult position. They also haven't got any access to British consulate officials. But they're not prisoners of war. They've just been arrested. So their status is very, very different, and it must be very, very confusing for them.
RFE/RL: Since those captured are military personnel, one would have expected them to talk with more reluctance than what we've seen on television. What kind of training do navy personnel have to help them in the event they are captured?
Heyman: I think that all the training is for capture by an enemy force. None of the training goes into being detained. They're not captured. They're being detained or arrested in a civil dispute. And there's no doubt whatsoever -- nobody can deny this -- that those sailors and marines are being treated humanely and decently by the looks of things, by the Iranians. And that's why they're smiling and they're relaxed. They know that this is a civil case, as opposed to being prisoners of war. It's a very, very difficult area. You know, you can play very easily with the public-relations aspect of it. You can get them in unguarded moments and take images of them when they are smiling. They're not going to be sitting around scowling 24 hours a day. That's not how you keep your morale up.
RFE/RL: What does this do for the image of the British military in general?
Heyman: It has come at a very sensitive moment. I think that most people worldwide understand the realities of a situation like this. These people -- the sailors and the marines -- are in a very difficult position. They weren't really equipped for war fighting. They weren't equipped to properly defend themselves. They only had small arms, while the boats that surrounded them had heavy machine guns and much heavier weapons.
RFE/RL: And on top of everything, Britain is not at war with Iran.
Heyman: Britain's not at war. Who would it have helped if there would have been a gun battle in the straits between the Royal Navy -- basically in a small rubber boat -- and the Iranian Republican Guard? It wouldn't have helped anyone. It would have sparked off something that would have given maybe some very warlike people in the world -- some people who really want to have a war in that area -- an excuse for going to war. So I think that certainly, the fact that those sailors and marines just went quietly with the Iranians was a good thing, at the end of the day. And I think that if we play this one correctly, our people will come back and it will be recognized for what it is -- a relatively minor territorial incident. They go on all the time. If you really wanted to get belligerent, there are enough ships and submarines, cruise missiles, aircraft -- things like that -- in the area to cause significant damage. But nobody wants that.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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