In a dramatic illustration of the different postures adopted by British and US forces working together in Iraq, Lt.Cmdr. Erik Horner, who has been working alongside the task force to which the 15 captured Britons belonged, said he was "surprised" the British marines and sailors had not been more aggressive.
Asked by The Independent whether the men under his command would have fired on the Iranians, he said:
"Agreed. Yes. I don't want to second-guess the British after the fact but our rules of engagement allow a little more latitude. Our boarding team's training is a little bit more towards self-preservation."
The executive officer, second-in-command on USS Underwood, the frigate working in the British controlled task force with HMS Cornwall,said:
"The unique US Navy rules of engagement say we not only have a right to self defence but also an obligation to self defence. They [the British] had every right in my mind and every justification to defend themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken. Our reaction was, 'Why didn't your guys defend themselves?'"
His comments came as it was reported British intelligence had been warned by the CIA that Iran would seek revenge for the detention of five suspected Iranian intelligence officers in Iraq two months ago but refused to raise threat levels in line with their US counterparts.
The capture of the eight sailors and seven marines, including one young mother, will undoubtedly renew accusations that Britain's determination to maintain a friendly face in the region has left its troops frequently under protected.
Vastly outnumbered and out-gunned, the Royal Navy team from HMS Cornwall were seized on Friday after completing a UN authorised inspection of a merchant dhow in what they insist were clearly Iraqi waters. The Iranian Republican Guard Corps Navy appeared in half a dozen attack speedboats mounted with machine guns.