When diplomacy means Iran never has to say it’s sorry
Three weeks ago, ten American sailors on two naval boats were seized by Iran.
One of the first readouts of what happened came from the State Department with this tidbit:
Now, the Secretary then got on the phone with Foreign Minister Zarif for the first time – I think the first of at least five phone calls they had during the course of that afternoon and evening – at about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The main message that he – there were a few messages he wanted to convey to the foreign minister. One, to provide him with some information about our understanding of what had happened, which was not perfect but was sort of developing in real time. And we had gathered some information including that the sailors were in transit at the time of the incident, that they were in transit between Kuwait and Bahrain, that they may have had some sort of mechanical problem – although at that point we weren’t sure – that we had lost communications with them, and that we had indications that they were now located on Farsi Island in the Gulf.
The Secretary made clear that our most important priority – and that this was critical – was that they be released, obviously, safely and unharmed and as quickly as possible, and that if we were able to do this – and this is something that he said to Zarif on a few occasions – if we are able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.
Think about that last line, “a good story for both of us.”
This was less than a week before the United States was going to lead the world in releasing $100 billion in frozen Iranian funds. If Iran didn’t release the sailors, it would have been politically impossible to release the money.
We now know that at the same time in a parallel process the United States was preparing to release seven Iranians who had been arrested and some of them convicted for smuggling or hacking in exchange for five American who had been taken hostage by Iran. In addition the United States promised not to pursue 14 others and was working on the release of $1.7 billion essentially as ransom for its hostages.
If the United States had held up the sanctions relief, the hostage release would likely have been cancelled too. (It didn’t stop Iran from temporarily seizing the wife and mother of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, as it was releasing him and two others.)
If Iran could boast of getting its billions, and its criminals released then Kerry could boast that the release of the sailors “is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong.”
If you accept the administration’s and media’s premise that the release of the sailors was the story, then you can’t argue with Kerry. But as I’ve argued before the significant story is not the sailors’ release but their capture, well then Kerry’s story isn’t so good anymore.
What have we seen in the past three weeks?
After seizing two boats and their ten crew members Iran released videos of the soldiers being arrested, kneeling before their captors.
About ten days ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the capture of the sailors to be “God’s deed” on social media.
Unsurprisingly, over the weekend Khamenei gave medals to a number of the commanders involved in the seizure of the soldiers and the boats.
And on Monday the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi boasted that Iran had gleaned “extensive information” from the sailors’ phones and laptops.
Iran then boasted if flew a drone over a U.S. carrier:
Yes I know that Kerry decided that he was “angry” about the video of the captured sailors a few days after the event. And I know that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter decided he was “very, very angry” about the sailors’ treatment two weeks after the incident.
But what Iran did required more that pro forma expressions of outrage by American officials.
The legal experts referenced the theU.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. abides by and Iran has signed but not ratified. Under it, 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, said Craig Allen, a professor of marine and environmental affairs at the University of Washington School of Law.
Iran had the right to query the U.S. assault boats and if they didn’t like their answer, they had the right to expel them from their waters. But they didn’t have the right to arrest them.
“They can say ‘You are no longer conducting an innocent passage, get out,’” Allen said. “You expel them — you don’t haul them into your port.”
The arrest of the sailors, holding them at gunpoint, the videos of their capture, and searching their computers. These actions are all examples of Iranian lawlessness that has been ignored by the administration.
The awards given by Khamenei show, in the words of Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, that the actions taken by the IRGC navy had to have been “blessed, encouraged, and supported from the very top.”
The triumph of diplomacy that Kerry is trumpeting is nothing more than code for staying silent while Iran humiliates the United States. And it will encourage further Iranian lawlessness going forward. With the billions of sanctions relief no longer in the balance the United States will have precious little leverage to use diplomacy for good outcomes in the future.