Iran’s detention of U.S. sailors sets off debate over nuclear deal

An Iranian state news agency broadcast a video of U.S. sailors being detained Tuesday. The incident outraged opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, but Obama administration officials said they handled the incident appropriately. The 10 sailors were released Wednesday.
An Iranian state news agency broadcast a video of U.S. sailors being detained Tuesday. The incident outraged opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, but Obama administration officials said they handled the incident appropriately. The 10 sailors were released Wednesday. AP

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday defended the Obama administration’s handling of the brief detention of 10 U.S. sailors whose vessels had strayed into Iranian waters, an episode that critics of the Iran nuclear deal seized upon as proof that Tehran shouldn’t be trusted.

Iran released them after about 16 hours in custody, during which time the Americans were provided with food and blankets, but also were filmed in prisoner-style conditions, according to videos released by Iranian news agencies.

The Obama administration portrayed the outcome as a diplomatic victory; critics of the Iran nuclear deal considered the whole affair indicative of the risks in letting a longtime pariah back into the international fold.

“I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” Kerry said in remarks before a mostly military audience at National Defense University in Washington. “In fact, it is clear that today this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved and efficiently resolved and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong.”

Much of the anger was directed at the perceived audacity of the move – seizing uniformed Americans and showing them subjugated on camera just as President Barack Obama touted the Iran deal as a foreign policy success in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. That deal, which offers Iran sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling key parts of its nuclear program, is to go into effect in “the coming days,” Kerry said.

In video footage circulated by Iranian outlets, the U.S. sailors are shown with their hands up and one apologizes on camera, prompting questions of whether Iran had violated Geneva Convention codes for the treatment of detainees. U.S. officials say the Department of Defense is debriefing the sailors about the videos and that it would be premature to say whether any Geneva violation had been committed.

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Politicians who are against dealing with Iran accused the administration of hastily assessing that the sailors had been treated well. Some called for a review of the nuclear deal in light of Iran’s actions. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said “Congress and the president should not be swayed by Iran’s intentional attempts to humiliate America.”

“Iran’s capture of these sailors raises serious questions about the Iranian regime and what it will take for the Obama administration to understand that Iran is not a partner in peace,” Pompeo said in a statement. “How many American service members does Iran would have to capture? How many U.N. resolutions does Iran have to violate?”

The incident at sea wouldn’t delay implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, administration officials said.

A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity as per department protocol, said that Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talked by phone more than five times over the course of 10 hours, a demonstration of the close working relationship they’ve developed through the negotiations.

The official, speaking on a conference call with reporters, gave a brief synopsis of the tense hours leading up to the sailors’ release. He said Kerry was in the middle of a meeting Tuesday with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the Filipino ministers of defense and foreign affairs when he was alerted. Staff members did an initial round of fact-finding and then briefed Kerry at about 12:30 p.m.

As it happened, the official said, Kerry already had planned to speak to Zarif at about 12:45 p.m. as part of their regular contact, though this conversation “obviously was going to take on a different nature and a different degree of importance.”

The official, like others across the administration, insisted that Kerry didn’t apologize to Zarif at any point, though Kerry did offer an explanation. He told Zarif that the sailors were in transit between Kuwait and Bahrain and had experienced some sort of mechanical failure. U.S. officials lost touch with the vessels, which ended up in Iranian waters, near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf.

“We did explain that this was basically a routine transit mission, that it had no way – had in no way intended to end up anywhere on Farsi Island or in Iranian territorial waters,” the official said.

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The official said that in Kerry’s many conversations with Zarif, he focused on one main message: “If we were able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.”

The calls between Washington and Tehran continued into late Tuesday and it appeared that the matter would be resolved. Kerry and other Cabinet members involved in the Iranian incident attended the president’s State of the Union address. Kerry and Zarif spoke again after Obama’s address, the official said, because the “secretary wanted to check in and make sure that all indications remained that this was on track.”

At around 10:30 p.m. Washington time, the official said, “Foreign Minister Zarif assured him that everything he knew suggested that it was.”

Before daybreak in Washington, at about 3:45 a.m., Iranian boats escorted the sailors to a rendezvous point in the Persian Gulf where they boarded the USS Anzio. They underwent medical checks and the U.S. Navy said in a statement that “there are no indications that the sailors were harmed during their brief detention.”

When confronted with pointed questions about the videos of the sailors in custody, administration officials said they would await a review by the Defense Department and would “adjust” their early assessments if any violations are found. For now, however, the administration points to the smooth resolution as the fruit of a policy that promotes diplomacy rather than force when dealing with Iran.

“I think it was an opportunity to demonstrate that they had the ability to cooperate and to be responsible when presented with a complicated situation like this,” the senior State Department official said.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam