National Maritime Boundaries

UnionJack Flag of Iran

With the return of the British hostages, the media focus has moved to the identification of who won.


Blair, caretaker British Prime Minister

Blair made the interesting claim that the release was a result of quiet diplomacy, going on to claim that there had been no negotiations, as though the two could be separated. Diplomacy is a negotiation between two or more parties who start from very different points and attempt to maintain their different positions while forcing the other to move position. If neither side is able to move position, war will eventually be the continuation of negotiation until one side becomes exhausted and unable to continue.

Shatt al arab

The Shatt Al Arab Waterway has long been a source of dispute between Iraq and Iran

The more interesting question is not of who won, but of how national maritime boundaries can be agreed and observed.


British riverine patrols and naval blockade patrols operate under UN mandate

In the case of the British hostages, a reasonable nation, protecting its boundaries, would have informed the sailors that they were in national waters without permission, and then invited to leave immediately. In this particular situation the Iranian gunboats cut out the British RIB and forced it at gunpoint into an Iranian port where the sailors were taken captive. That the British frigate and its helicopter allowed this to happen could be the subject of an inquiry. One option would have been to prevent the Iranians from cutting out the British RIB and allowing it time to return to HMS Cornwall, neutralizing Iranian power and allowing both countries to take the matter up with each other diplomatically.


In any part of the world, the nationals of one country could find themselves in conflict with the border patrol of another country. In some cases the situation will be made more difficult because the border guards act disproportionately and engineer conflict. In other cases, the conflict will be created by the alleged invaders.

vietnam mekong

Many rivers enter the sea through complex and shifting deltas. Where national boundaries run through the delta and out to the maritime limits, disputes do arise

These problems usually exist because countries fail to agree the position of national boundaries. A land boundary is usually the easiest to agree and it most frequently follows a river. The river will change its course, but this is usually a very slow process and, where the new course cuts into country A at one or more points, it usually also cuts into country B in a similar number of points, so that the average effect on national territory is neutral.


Surtsey is one of the islands that make up Iceland. All have formed by volcanic action, appearing suddenly from the sea bed and creating new national maritime boundaries

Marine boundaries have always been more difficult because the rate of change can be sudden and dramatic. The most dramatic situation can be the creation of a new island as a result of silting or volcanic activity. Neighbours can argue for years over who owns the new island and how its emergence affects the existing boundary agreements. Less dramatic will be the movement of channels but this can also be rapid change.


Iran and Iraq have long disputed their common boundaries and a bitter war was fought, resulting in massive casualties

The border between Iraq and Iran is one such estuary dispute. The 1975 agreement that gave control to Iraq has never been recognized by Iran. Both countries share a waterway that joins the Gulf waters as a navigable channel. Provided that neither country attempts to prohibit the ships of the other from using the channel, and provided that between them they adequately mark the changing channel for safe navigation, it matters little where the boundary lies, or where it moves to – except perhaps to nationalist politicians.

In the case of Iran and Iraq there is a long history of dispute and major war, during which time there has been no regular meeting to agree the changing marine boundary. The result is that everyone has a different idea of where the boundary lies. In this situation, the British patrols, operating under UN mandate, may very well have a completely different perception of where the boundary lies from any other interested party. In this recent dispute, and hostage taking, both sides may have been correct from their own perception.

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Perhaps, now is the time for an international body, such as the IMO, to take responsibility for arbitrating all shared marine boundaries, under UN mandate. That would then remove all confusion about where a line in the water may lay at any time. Border guards will then have an enforced border to patrol and sailors will know where they must steer to avoid infringing someone else’s national sovereignty.


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