International Law and Iran’s Seizure of UK Sailors

by Julian Ku

Iran’s seizure last week of 15 UK sailors for allegedly crossing into Iranian territorial waters is part of a very complex diplomatic story intertwined with Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, and longstanding UK-Iranian tensions. But it also raises some international legal questions.

For instance, were the UK sailors actually in Iranian waters?
The UK sailors had authority from the Iraqi government and a United Nations Security Council Resolution to operate in Iraqi territorial waters to try to stop smuggling. But their authority plainly did not allow them to stray into Iranian waters. Determining where the line is between Iran and Iraq though is a bit tricky since both sides dispute it, and, by the way, neither country is a state party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, neither side is probably willing to release their information on exactly where the seizure occurred.

Even if the UK sailors were actually in Iranian waters, don’t the Iranians have some obligation to allow access by UK officials?
This would seem to be the case since the UK and Iran still have official (albeit shaky) diplomatic relations and, at the very least, Iran probably has some obligation under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to allow consular access to the British detainees.

Although these legal questions appear to be out there, my impression is that the British government is studiously avoiding any legal claims or arguments in their protests to Iran. Tony Blair has called the seizure “unjustified and wrong” but he has not said it was illegal. Nor has he challenged the legality of the conditions of the UK sailors’ detention, even though it would seem relevant. This is probably because the UK believes it has a diplomatic angle here and that drawing legal lines in the sand, so to speak, would be an obstacle to the diplomatic solution. But if those negotiations fail, expect the legal rhetoric to start heating up.*

UPDATE: Actually, some Brits are raising international law arguments, but in favor of Iran rather than the UK. Former UK diplomat Craig Murray has made comments to the Iranian press arguing that Iran’s seizure was legitimate and appropriate under international law.

2 Responses

  1. Regardless of whether the british soldiers were in fact in violation of Iran’s territorial waters, one would think that coercing confessions and trotting them around on TV (previous incident) would be beyond the pale.

  2. Julian – why on earth do you assume that “neither side is probably willing to release their information on exactly where the seizure occurred”? Whichever is in the right has a clear interest in doing so – as the UK is now doing: see the reports at and

    Second, of course the UK govt statements are to the effect that the seizure was illegal – what more does one need than “Our personnel were in two boats, which were operating in Iraqi territorial waters in accordance with UNSCR 1723”?

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