Politics & Policy

Far from American Headlines, Iran Keeps Humiliating U.S. Sailors

Khamenei greets Republican Guard officers involved in the seizure.

Jihadist reality is a stubborn thing. Politically correct spin and naïve optimism always fails in the face of persistent aggression. Regarding Iran, the Obama administration’s grotesque misstatements in the aftermath of Iran’s capture and public humiliation of American sailors should now join its post-Benghazi lies in the hall of shame. Before discussing the most recent developments, let’s review the lowlights.

Three weeks ago Iranian Revolutionary Guards intercepted two U.S. Navy “riverine” boats they claimed had wandered into Iranian territorial waters. They forced the sailors onto their knees, taped an American officer apologizing, and then broadcast the images and apology to the world. In response, administration officials actually bragged about their handling of the incident and defended Iran.

Vice President Joe Biden called Iran’s actions “standard nautical practice.” An hour after Iran released its humiliating footage, Secretary of State John Kerry actually thanked “Iranian authorities” for their “cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter” (though he did later say that the footage made him “very angry.”) Secretary of Defense Ash Carter compared Iran’s actions to the way the U.S. provides “assistance to foreign sailors in distress” and also expressed his appreciation to Iran.

RELATED: Iran’s Propaganda Victory in One Illegal Image

These statements were disingenuous, at best. More likely, they were actively deceptive, designed to draw American eyes away both from Iran’s illegal actions and from a propaganda victory that would provide it with enduring dividends in the Middle East and beyond.

In the immediate aftermath of the seizure, I argued that Iran’s televised humiliation of American sailors violated the Geneva Convention by subjecting its prisoners to “insults and public curiosity.” But Iran’s violations went far beyond its treatment of American sailors and included the seizure of the boat itself. As the Navy Times reports, the arrests themselves were unlawful and “an emerging consensus of U.S. legal experts believe the provocative act was a dangerous violation of international law.”

For the Iranians, their public humiliation of the U.S. is the gift that keeps on giving.

Under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, “a warship has ‘sovereign immunity’ and can transit the territorial waters of another so long as they move ‘continuously and expeditiously’ and do not conduct any military operations.” Under the Convention, Iran has the right to query and expel any vessels violating its territorial waters, but it did not have the right to “haul them into [its] port.”

Moreover, even if the boats were in distress and not moving “continuously and expeditiously,” they had a right to “stop or drop anchor to make repairs.” Iran had a right to approach the boats, but it had “no right to board and should not have arrested the sailors and seized high-tech riverine command boats.”

Indeed, by its own conduct since the seizure and release, Iran has been acknowledging and celebrating its “victory” over the United States. Earlier this week, Iran’s Supreme Leader awarded five men with its “Order of Fat’h,” a medal primarily given to Iranian war heroes:

On Monday, reports emerged that the Iranians are now bragging about the amount of information they extracted from sailors’ cell phones and laptops, while also claiming that it has far more embarrassing footage it could release. Pentagon officials acknowledge that the Iranians seized the SIM cards from two American phones. Iran inarguably had access to sensitive — and perhaps classified — information. Sardar Fadavi, the newly decorated commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s naval forces, reportedly declared, “If U.S. officials say they are angry with and frustrated by the footage released, they would be 100 times more embarrassed if the IRGC releases other films of the capture.”

RELATED: Iran’s Arrest of U.S. Sailors Reflect Obama’s Foreign-Policy Weakness

For the Iranians, their public humiliation of the U.S. is the gift that keeps on giving. Public award ceremonies and threats of releasing additional footage (or information on American electronic equipment) not only help remind the Iranian public — and the larger Middle East — of Iranian strength, they serve as a form of blackmail for American officials. Without precise knowledge of the footage, the contents of the stolen SIM cards, or the information extracted from laptops and other devices they can only guess at what the Iranians know.

#related#The entire episode is shameful, and positive administration spin is pathetic. Iran illegally captured two American boats, illegally subjected its crew to public humiliation, illegally extracted and broadcast a public “apology,” and illegally obtained electronic information from American laptops, satellite phones, and cell phones. And it accomplished all this in less than 24 hours. It was a humiliating moment for American arms, a victory for Iran, and — crucially — a sign that Iran disregards treaties and international law with impunity.

When confronted with defeat, the Obama-administration pattern is now clear: Lie until the news cycle moves on. But while the administration escapes political accountability at home, it cannot escape the real-world consequences abroad. A diminished America is a vulnerable America, and we will all pay the price.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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