Iran’s Seizure of British Yachtsmen Underscores Safety Concerns in Gulf Waters

By Patrick Goodenough | December 1, 2009 | 4:33 AM EST

The British government says Iran has been holding five Britons since November 25, when their yacht, “Kingdom of Bahrain,” was stopped by Iranian naval vessels. (Image: Team Pindar/Sail Bahrain Web site)

( – The Iranian government has detained five Britons whose yacht “may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian waters” in the Persian Gulf. The news comes amid a legal dispute over where to hold the upcoming America’s Cup race, given concerns about the safety of American yachtsmen in Iran’s neighborhood.
A convoluted dispute has been dragging on for many months over whether the 33rd running of yachting’s most prestigious race should be held next February in the waters off Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, or off Valencia in Spain.
The defenders of the Cup, Swiss team Alinghi, want the UAE venue while the California-based challenger BMW Oracle are pressing for Valencia.
Among the issues at the heart of the dispute are differing interpretations of the 19th century document that established the Cup’s rules, who has the right to select the location of the race, and a wrangle over whether the race can be held in the northern hemisphere in winter.
But the Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) in San Francisco, under whose colors BMW Oracle sails, also has raised concerns that one of the world’s most sophisticated and expensive yachts, flying the U.S. flag, could be an enticing target for the Iranians amid the current diplomatic tensions.
In a legal brief filed last month, GGYC said that a reconnaissance team visited Ras al-Khaimah to assess safety and found among other things that “Iran would likely try to seize any boat and personnel that came close to Iran’s waters, an obvious concern given that the race area designated by [Alinghi’s club] SNG abuts contiguous Iranian waters.”
“After careful and prudent consideration, GGYC, which will be sailing a vessel named ‘USA’ that flies an American flag on a 200-foot mast, determined that it would be unsafe to race on the course selected by SNG,” the brief stated.
In the most recent development in the marathon legal dispute, a New York court is expected to decide by mid-December on an appeal by Alinghi/SNG against an earlier ruling in favor of Valencia being the venue.
The seizure of the British sailors is not related to the America’s Cup, but did take place in the area where the head-to-head race would be held in February should Ras al-Khaimah be settled upon as the race venue.
The Swiss America’s Cup team did not respond to queries relating to the Persian Gulf security concerns in the light of the latest incident. A spokesperson for BMW Oracle said the team declined to comment on the situation.
British foreign secretary David Miliband said Monday that the five Britons had been held since November 25, when their yacht was stopped by Iranian naval vessels.
The Volvo 60 class yacht, Kingdom of Bahrain, was sailing from Bahrain to Dubai, where it had planned to enter a race to Oman.
Miliband said British officials had “immediately contacted the Iranian authorities in London and in Tehran on the evening of 25 November, both to seek clarification and to try and resolve the matter swiftly.”
As of Monday, however, the five men were still in Iranian hands.
A statement by the yacht’s Bahrain-based team Monday said that the five were “understood to be safe and well and their families have been informed.”
Iran targets US, Britain
Relations between Tehran and the West, strained for years over Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorism in the Middle East, have become even more so over the months since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election and subsequent clampdown on opposition protests.
Last Friday, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog passed a resolution condemning Iran for continuing to defy the international community over uranium enrichment, and on Sunday Iran responded by announcing it would build another ten enrichment plants.
Sunday also saw Iran’s parliament pass a law setting aside $20 million to support what it calls “progressive” groups – analysts say the term refers to militants – opposing the U.S. and Britain, as well as to counter “plots” by the two Western governments against Iran.
Meanwhile three American hikers detained at the end of July after reportedly straying over the Iran-Iraq border remain in custody, and a senior prosecutor last month accused them of espionage, raising concerns they may be put on trial. (Earlier this year an Iranian court convicted an American-Iranian journalist, Roxana Saberi, of espionage and sentenced her to eight years’ imprisonment. She was freed the following month.)
Iran has accused Britain in particular of playing a role in the post-election protests, and last month an Iranian employee of the British Embassy was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of fomenting violence.
The seizure of the Kingdom of Bahrain crew is not the first time Iran has detained Britons in the Gulf.
In March 2007, an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) naval unit apprehended British sailors and marines there, claiming they were in Iranian waters. Tehran held 15 of them hostage for 13 days before Ahmadinejad said he was releasing them as a “gift” to the British people.
A Royal Navy officer said later that when approached by the Iranians the British vessel was in Iraqi, not Iranian, waters. The border between Iran and Iraq runs through the waters at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway near Basra.
In an earlier incident, Iran in 2004 seized and held two British sailors and six marines who were training members of the new Iraqi security forces in anti-smuggling operations in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. They were held for three days, during which time some were paraded on Iranian television and made to “apologize.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow