A War of Geography

The current stand off between Iran and the UK over navy personnel boils down to extreme measures justified by bad geography. There is confusion over what the border is and where everyone was. And no, it’s by no means a defense of what’s happened, or even a criticism of the UK govt (who must be aware that their military exercises are pretty dang close to Iran anyway, and want it that way) .. I just find the ambiguous nature of imaginary lines fascinating.

There are scores of territorial disputes across the globe, yet most every common map illustrates borders as thick heavy lines. From porous internal EU borders (driving from Germany to Austria is like crossing a US state border), to heavily military-level fortified peacetime US-Mexico border, to the wide borderlands between Haiti and Dominican Republic .. what visual representations can really be faithful to the true situation on the ground?

In my ideal world, the ships of the two opposing sides dock next to each other, break out laptops, share wifi if necessary (“our WEP key is DEATHTOBRITAIN”), and OpenStreetMap until they were satisfied .. turn a naval war into an edit war .. not that OpenStreetMap isn’t occasionally just as conflicted as the Middle East.


The UK released the last GPS coordinates of the captured ship as “29 degrees 50.36 minutes north, 048 degrees 43.08 minutes east”, or 29.843333, 48.718889. The BBC has gone into more depth on the disputed positions and geographies. Yes it’s highly dubious that the Iranians changed their reported GPS coordinates to defend their position .. we’re not exactly in an urban canyon here with a bad signal.


On gmaps, you can see a bit of what the core of the dispute could be about. The delta of the Shatt al-Arab is quite naturally full of sediment, which does shift over time. The closest that Iraq and Iran have to a treaty over their precise borders in this area is a 1975 agreement that the boundary along the Shatt al-Arab extends along the median line of land exposed in extreme low tides, which the mud banks in what is commonly labeled open waters. The UK has called these some areas maritime waters in their communications, though technically they wouldn’t be under this definition. The thing about deltas and mud banks is that they shift, so they 1975 agreement includes provisions to resurvey this mud every 10 years, which actually hasn’t happened.

Craig Murray, a controversial former UK embassador, has been arguing that the situation is extremely unclear because Iraq and Iran have never formally agreed on the border in the delta. Craig Murray has negotiated territorial disputes before, and in two fascinating posts and comments discussions (if you ignore the annoyingly political Blair is a liar type stuff), he gets quite geeky on the geography and diplomacy. Territorial waters are generally agreed to extend 12 nautical miles from permanently dry land, unless that overlaps with the same from another country, then they must come to some agreement. The border in this case generally should follow some median line, and insure that both countries have navigable waters in the area. The coastlines in the area are quite convoluted, and navigation is tricky with all the mud banks. To come up with that median line, both parties must agree on a set of reference points to define the median line, and some of those points could be land only above sea level periodically, so those are assigned fractional weights in the calculation.

The International Boundaries Research Unit has published an excellent summary of the Iraq Iran Maritime Boundary, with clear detail on the geographic and political questions. AP also released a summary of the border murkiness. In summary, the boundary would be pretty clear if we lived in a rational world, though we clearly do not.

This isn’t the first time the Iran-Iraq border has led to conflict. Heck, when have borders not led to conflict .. absolutely harks back to maps as a military technology. Anyway, in 2004, a similar incident occurred directly on the Shatt al-Arab. In part, the dispute sparked the Iraq-Iran War in the 80s. And it’s been going on since a peace treaty signed in 1639 between the Persian and the Ottoman Empires. Wikipedia has a good account.

2 thoughts on “A War of Geography”

  1. A very timely, informative post.

    Let’s make an appeal for the governments of the world to upload GPXes to OpenStreetMap of their borders, and of the borders of any countries they are currently occupying.

    While Wiki-editing of international borders is unlikely to be productive, the claims and counterclaims of disputed borders can become more widely known via OSM. If citizens and journalists can easily look up problematic locations on a map, then our leaders will be less likely to make hasty and dangerous declarations of innocence, and our armed forces less likely to go to stray into provocative zones.

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