Will the US use the latest drone incident as a justification and pretext to attack Iran -- just as Reagan did with Libya over a dispute about Libya's claims to the Gulf of Sidra? Is this the precursor and an indicator of the "crisis initiation" that Patrick Clawson mused about?
I am amused by the number of armchair lawyers that have popped up on the internet to claim that the US drone which was supposedly and according to the Pentagon 16 miles from Iran (hopefully, that's 16 NAUTICAL miles - did anyone check?) was in "international airspace," and 4 miles outside of Iranian territorial waters, and so the Iranian attack on it constituted aggression and an attack on the US -- as if the issue of determining maritime boundaries is simply a matter of subtraction rather than a highly complicated and legally controversial matter.
Yes, I know the textbook answer is that territorial seas extend 12 nautical miles but in practice, there all sorts of practical and legal complications: aside from the fact that determining the baseline where the 12-mile limit is drawn can be quite complicated (due to the irregular shape of the coastline, and the presence of bays, islands, shifting sandbanks etc) there are also questions of legal interpretation of treaties. That's why there are so many unresolved maritime border disputes around the world which occasionally flare up and risk outright war.
For example, several nations don't even recognize the 12 mile definition, and they don't have to since the relevant treaty is just a treaty and not the world of God Almighty. Amongst the list of countries that do not recognize the 12-mile limit are Peru, Liberia, Benin, Somalia, etc. -- all of which instead claim a 200 nautical mile limit to their territorial waters. Nor is this some sort of idle claim. Though most Americans certainly don't remember it, in 1992 Peru shot down an unarmed American C-130 airplane which had been spying on drug operations in that country without the consent of the Peruvian government. One American airforce officer was presumably killed when he was sucked out of the damaged airplane and his body was never found, and several others were seriously injured. The shooting took place about 30 miles off of Peru's coastline -- an area which under the 12-mile rule should have been considered international airspace. However, both the US and Peru hushed up the matter and portrayed it as a case of mistaken identity. Compare that to the wails of "Aggression!" we hear about due to Iran firing warning shots at a toaster flying right off (if not inside?) Iranian airspace.
Another example: In 1985, Canada objected to the presence of US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea in the Northwest Passage, claiming that the Passage was sovereign Canadian territory. Thankfully that dispute was somewhat resolved when the US and Canada later agreed that the US would not send vessels there without prior approval of the Canadians.(Today the Canadians allow free access)
The UN treaty itself recognizes that there are all sorts of exceptions to the 12 mile rule, for example in the case of "historic bays": bays that a country can claim to be historically entirely part of its territorial waters, even though it may be much larger than the 12 mile limit. The Bay of Delaware in the US, the Sea of Azov in the fUSSR, and the Bay of Chaleur in Canada are all such "historic bays". If the 12-mile rule strictly applied, these would be international waters, not the territorial waters of the countries mentioned.
There several other countries which make similar claims to their own historic bays, which the US does not recognize: Canada's claim to Hudson Bay; India and Sri Lanka's claims for Palk Bay and the Gulf of Manaar; Uruguay's claim to Rio de la Plata; Australia's claim to Anxious Bay, Encounter Bay, Lacepede Bay and Rivoli Bay; Cambodia's claim to the Gulf of Thailand; Italy's claims for the Gulf of Taranto; Panama's for the Gulf of Panama; the former USSR's for the Gulf of Riga and Peter the Great Bay (contested by Japan); and Vietnam's for the Gulfs of Tonkin and Thailand.
When the US doesn't recognize such a claim to historic bays and other disputed waters, it has a habit of sending in its warships to conduct manouvres there, which it refers to as "freedom of navigation" manouvres. Ostensibly the US goal is to establish, though such manouvres, that the claims are not recognized by other powers in actual practice (the US legal position is that actual recognition of a claim is required to establish a valid legal claim to a "historic bay" rather than mere acquiescence by other powers -- though other nations don't necessarily see it that way.) In reality, this is a great way to justify wars.
One significant example of was Libya's claim to the Bay (of Gulf) of Sidre (aka Sirte), which Libya proclaimed to be entirely part of its territory in 1973. In 1989, Reagan sent in the US Navy there, and predictably the Libyans reacted by sending fighters, which were shot down. There was much jubiliation about how the US had protected the "freedom of navigation" in the bay from "illegal" claims by Ghaddafi, but in fact the supposed illegality of Libya's claim is very much open to doubt -- after all, the US isn't the final arbiter of international maritime disputes. But Reaan needed an excuse to attack Libya, and that was it.
So now we come to the issue of Iran and the drone incident. The US has warned Iran, regarding this incident, that it intends to continue operating in "international waters." And as I've mentioned before, the precise legal boundaries in the area are "highly disputed" so what constitutes "international waters" is open to interpretation, aside from the ambiguities of determining what exactly constitutes a 12-mile limit. Even before this recent drone encounter, the US has already objected to Iran's legal claims to its marine borders.
Is it only a matter of time before, under the guise of protecting the "freedom of navigation", the US will be sending naval vessels to conduct manouvres in Iran's claimed waters, thus creating a pretext to attack Iran -- just as Reagan did in the Gulf of Sidra?