March 25, 2007

Troubled Waters - the Shatt Al-'Arab

Click for larger imageThe recent seizure of 15 British sailors and marines by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy took place in a narrow waterway between Iran and Iraq. That waterway is the Shatt Al-'Arab.

The Shatt Al-'Arab is formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers at Al-Qurnah, Iraq, and runs south approximately 120 miles to the Persian Gulf. The southern 50 miles of the Shatt form the international border between the countries of Iraq and Iran. More than just a border between two countries, it is the cultural and philosophical dividing line between the Arabs and the Persians (Iranians). In fact, the words Shatt Al-'Arab in Arabic translate to "the Arab coast."

This short waterway holds much more importance than its size would indicate. Both Iran and Iraq want to control it - a desire they have had for centuries. In 1847, Iran (then called Persia), under pressure from the Ottoman Empire (which then included what is now Iraq), signed the Treaty of Erzerum which in effect gave sovereignty of the entire waterway to the Ottomans. Under the terms of this treaty, the major Persian port on the Shatt, Khorramshahr, could only be reached through waters controlled by the Ottomans.

After the defeat of the Turks in World War One and the subsequent breakup of their empire, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate of the area that is now Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. The British drew the current borders and granted Iraq its independence in 1932. The new kingdom demanded that it be allowed to continue the Ottoman sovereignty over the waterway, and based on British might at the time, received it. Although Iran appealed to the League of Nations a few years later, Iraqi retained its sovereignty over the entire width of the waterway. In 1937, however, the two countries did agree to some slight modifications to the sovereignty line to allow unimpeded Iranian access to its oil loading areas at the ports of Abadan and Khorramshahr.

In 1969, the Iranians unilaterally abrogated the 1937 agreement. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, openly challenged Iraqi authority over the Shatt. Iran also began supporting armed Kurdish separatist movements in northern Iraq, and allowed the United States Central Intelligence Agency to do the same via northern Iran. Under the Nixon Doctrine, the United States began to supply Iran with the state-of-the-art military hardware and training. Although the Iraqi Kurds in were not likely to overthrow the Ba'ath Party regime in power, they were exhausting the Iraqi army in the rugged, mountainous terrain of northern Iraq.

On March 6, 1975, Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Agreement, or more precisely the Iran-Iraq Treaty on International Borders and Good Neighborly Relations, whose provisions were brokered by Jordan's King Hussein. The agreement delineated the international border between the two countries as the thalweg, or the deepest point of the waterway, as opposed to the eastern shore. Baghdad agreed to the treaty in return for Tehran's commitment to stop covert U.S. and Iranian support for the Kurds. Immediately after signing the agreement, the Baghdad sent the Iraqi army north on a brutal campaign and crushed the Kurdish guerrilla organizations, driving many Kurds out of Iraq and into neighboring Iran.

In 1979, leadership changes in both Iran and Iraq brought the issue of the Shatt to the forefront again. In Baghdad, the number two man in the Ba'th Party, Saddam Husayn, took power. In Iran that same year, the Shah was displaced in favor of the Ayatollah Khomeini. With Iran's military forces in disarray after the fall of the Shah and purges of the Iranian officer corps, Saddam thought he had the military power to right the perceived wrong of being forced to accept joint control of the Shatt.

On September 22, 1980, Iraq abrogated the Treaty of Algiers and launched a two-corps attack into Iran, including an assault into Iran's Arabic-speaking Khuzistan province. After their initial foray into Iran stalled, the Iraqis spent the next seven years on the defensive. With the start of the Iran-Iraq War, sovereignty over the Shatt became a moot issue. Commercial ships were sunk or trapped in the waterway and it was closed to navigation. Even after the war ended in 1988, sunken ships, tons of unexploded ordnance, and silt kept the waterway closed for years. Just as efforts to clear the Shatt of explosives and the trapped ships, the Gulf War precipitated by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990 effectively closed the waterway again.

In 1991, faced with imminent coalition military action, Iraq sought to defuse the tensions remaining after the end of the Iran-Iraq War by reinstating the provisions of the Treaty of Algiers, in effect turning the clock back to 1975 and giving up sovereignty over the entire width of the waterway.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime, the waterway has become an important link to the outside world again, allowing sea access to the port of Al-Basrah. Since the waterway is also a centuries-old smuggling route, it is patrolled by both Iranian and coalition vessels - a recipe for confrontation.