Iran today released U.S. sailors they took captive yesterday when, allegedly, their boats strayed into Iranian waters. Iran obtained a “thank you” from out of John Kerry on behalf of the Obama administration. It also sent out pictures of its U.S. captives in submissive positions, with a woman sailor covering her head in the Muslim way.
I’m relieved that the sailors were released so quickly. It also seems to me that President Obama made a good decision when he declined to mention the matter in his State of the Union address last night. Let the situation play out behind the scenes without public bluster, I say.
However, I’m dismayed by important aspects of how things played out, presumably because of the way Obama acted (or failed to act) behind the scenes. Put simply, Iran has scored a nice (for them) propaganda victory by humiliating the United States.
Let’s begin with the fact (albeit one of no importance to the Obama administration) that Iran violated international law in its treatment of our sailors. As David French points out:
Th[e] photograph violates international law. Article 13 of the Geneva Convention (III), governing the treatment of prisoners of war, requires Iran to protect prisoners against “insults and public curiosity.” This photograph — including a female sailor apparently forced to wear a headscarf – is a quintessential example of “public curiosity” and would be interpreted as insulting throughout the Muslim world.
Nor is the violation at all innocuous:
The sight of members of the American military, disarmed and under Iranian control, is of enormous propaganda value in Iran’s ongoing war against the United States. To its allies in the Middle East, the photo demonstrates Iran’s strength – how many jihadist countries have had this many American service members under their power? – and it demonstrates American weakness.
How should the administration have handled the situation? It should immediately have told the Iranians to obey all applicable international laws and to return the prisoners without delay.
How should the administration have obtained compliance with these demands? First, by threatening to withhold the billions of dollars in funds due to be released to Iran. Second, by threatening military action. All behind the scenes, rather than publicly.
This, in any case, is how a normal administration could be expected to get results. Whether this administration, with its history of fecklessness, could credibly make such threats is less clear. And sadly, it is clear that this administration is so determined to carry through with the nuclear deal — the absurdity of which becomes more obvious almost daily, as Iran thumbs its nose at international norms — that it would never consider threatening to do anything to hurt the mullahs.
Better to embrace humiliation and hand Tehran yet another propaganda win.
Meanwhile, for those who deplore American humiliation and Iranian propaganda wins, Michael Rubin reminds us of better times, when Ronald Reagan launched Operation Praying Mantis in response to Iranian aggression on the seas.