Numerous news reports have covered the Navy’s report on the capture of ten U.S. sailors in January by Iran, notably the Navy’s decision to discipline nine officers and sailors over the incident. But the media buried a bigger part of the incident in the Navy’s report. Here’s Politico, quoting from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson:

Richardson said a number of serious mistakes contributed to the sailors’ capture, but he reiterated they broke no international laws and “had every right to be where they were on that day” because the laws of the sea allow for what’s called innocent passage.

“The investigation concluded that Iran violated international law by impeding the boats’ innocent passage transit. They violated sovereign immunity by boarding, searching and seizing the boats and by photographing and videotaping the crew,” Richardson said.

Also note that in Richardson’s prepared remarks, the statement about Iran’s violations of international law is the first topic he covered.

Former naval intelligence officer J. E. Dyer explained the significance of Richardson’s remarks:

If the Iranians had behaved in the proper manner expected of them under international law – the way the U.S. behaves, the way most other nations behave – there would have been no incident. Period, full stop. Because there was no reason for one.

But of course this isn’t how the media has reported the incident or how the U.S. will treat Iran because of this incident. That’s because, as Dyer writes, “that it’s not up to Richardson … to raise them with Iran. It’s up to John Kerry and Barack Obama.”

Contrast Adm. Richardson with a former member of the U.S. Navy, Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry has maintained that the channel that was opened to Iran over the course of last year’s nuclear deal has been helpful to U.S. interests. He’s mentioned that his ability to communicate directly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif prevented the seizure of the sailors from becoming a bigger crisis. It’s a point he again made last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

There’s not – there’s no question that it opened up the opportunity for communication. I mean, when our sailors stumbled into Iranian territory and got held, two years ago we wouldn’t have known who – we would have called the Swiss. We would have called some other country and said, “Can you help us?” And enough time would have gone by and there would have been sufficient level of enmity that those guys would have probably been hostages and we’d have had another situation. But within 30 minutes I had my counterpart on the phone. Within an hour and a half we had a deal. It was clear they were going to come out and we were going to not make this a bad moment in what we were trying to achieve. So that’s a benefit that came out of the whole process.

In contrast to Kerry’s description of the incident as a diplomatic victory, Iranian leadership has portrayed the capture of the sailors as a military victory over the United States. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the capture “God’s deed,” and later gave awards to the commanders involved. Iran plans to build a statue to commemorate the event.

One of the most damning points of the now famous profile of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes by David Samuels in The New York Times Magazine published two months ago was Rhodes’ reaction to the capture of the sailors.

Standing in his front office before the State of the Union, Rhodes quickly does the political math on the breaking Iran story. “Now they’ll show scary pictures of people praying to the supreme leader,” he predicts, looking at the screen.

The timing of the sailors’ capture was all too inconvenient. It was the day of President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech and just days before the United States was to announce Implementation Day, the confirmation that Iran was now to be considered a good actor in nuclear matters and the end of U.S. imposed nuclear sanctions on Iran. Rhodes’ first reaction was not outrage provoked by the illegal Iranian capture of ten U.S. sailors, but how can we hid the story from the American people. As I described his mindset at the time.

It isn’t outrage, but maybe people will misunderstand. Of course the problem is that when fed the news straight people understand too well; it is Rhodes’ job to obfuscate what happens so they don’t question the administration.

When it wasn’t possible to hide the story, Rhodes, the frustrated novelist, rewrote it. It wasn’t an Iranian provocation, but a chance to build on the success of the nuclear deal.

Richardson repeated the point made by Sen. John McCain immediately after the incident and later by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter that Iran violated international law by seizing the sailors. That has not been the dominant news about the incident because of the administration’s very effective echo chamber.

And it is officers and sailors who are paying the price for the administration’s Iran outreach policy. One officer was fired in May and Richardson announced disciplinary measures against a total of ten officers and sailors stemming from the incident.

Maybe mistakes were made in handling the capture of the sailors, but as Richardson said the sailors “had every right to be where they were that day.” Without Iran’s actions there would have been no crisis. Richardson’s charge that Iran violated international law is one more reminder that after the incident Kerry thanked Iran for resolving a crisis it created.

[Photo: U.S. Navy / YouTube ]