The sailors call them "RHIBs" -- rigid hull inflatable boats. Add powerful outboard motors, and the agile, shallow-draft RHIB becomes an ideal watercraft for scooting around the Tigris and Euphrates estuary or for slipping among suspicious dhows in Iraqi coastal waters.
Light boats like RHIBs, however, aren't fighting vessels. Use one for patrol, boarding and police duties (missions 15 British sailors and marines were conducting last week), and the sailors have no protection other than the craft's swiftness and their own individual body armor. One long burst of light machinegun fire will likely sink the boat, as well as kill several of the sailors on board. Life vests worn over body armor will keep survivors bobbing, but make them easy targets for the next machinegun burst.
In 2005, I spent several days with American sailors who were conducting inspection operations in the northern end of the Persian Gulf. The sailors used RHIBs for the close work. The sailors were armed with shotguns and light automatic weapons (as the 15 Royal Navy personnel taken hostage by Iranian Revolutionary Guards most certainly were).
Even a routine boarding has its moment of doubt. A young petty officer acknowledged a fishing dhow could be a floating bomb, with the fisherman a potential "martyr." But he judged the possibility to be remote. "We know a lot of these fishing boats," he said. "We've watched them."
The U.S. sailors, however, weren't alone. A U.S. patrol boat with automatic cannons was never more than a few hundred meters away. A British frigate and an American cruiser patrolled nearby. We were in fairly deep water, 15 kilometers offshore.
The Royal Navy sailors and marines were apparently closer to shore in small open boats when the sailors were surprised and surrounded by Iranian craft. They surrendered in order to avoid a bloodbath and a larger international incident.
Britain says it has definitive evidence its personnel were in Iraqi territory. Even if they strayed into Iranian water, the fact the sailors and marines were surrounded and outgunned suggests a planned operation.
The British sailors are now hostages in an intercontinental game of brinksmanship. Once again, a tactical (small-scale military) engagement in the War on Terror has strategic (large-scale) political and psychological consequences.
It's also a reminder that when confronting terrorists and terror states, everyone is a potential hostage. In 1979, Iranian theo-fascists took the entire U.S. embassy hostage, in what many have come to regard as the first attack in the War on Terror.
But this latest hostage-taking incident smacks of desperation, not revolutionary fervor.
Late spring 2007 finds the Iranian "revolutionary government" facing an extraordinary range of internal and external problems.
There's a war inside Iran -- several wars, actually. Minority Baluchis, Azeris, Kurds and Arabs are restive.
The mullah's core problem is the Iranian people. Under-30 Iranians have had it with the mullahs' failed revolution.
A recent visitor to Iran described a twenty-fold increase in "the standard bribe" Tehran bureaucrats demand for a building permit. Call it indicative rumor, supporting the assertion that Iranians now believe their current government is more corrupt than the Shah's. Moreover, Iranians are aware of Iraq's political progress. There's a war in Iraq, yes, but also an emerging Arab democracy -- and that irritates Iranians who regard themselves as being more sophisticated than Arabs. The latest U.N. sanctions resolution increases political and economic pressure. It also freezes the economic assets of 28 people and organizations -- so the sanctions are tailored to hit specific Iranian actors (bad actors). The resolution passed unanimously, meaning the mullahs cannot count on China and Russia.
Confronting these problems, Iran's Islamist hardliners take Western hostages.
"These people have to be released," Britain's Tony Blair said on Monday. At the moment, Britain and its allies are pursuing diplomatic means. If they fail, Blair says, "then this will move into a different phase." Two U.S. aircraft carrier groups are now operating off Iranian shores. They are not small, open boats.