On Wednesday, these predictions proved generally accurate, although the sailors’ brief detention was still enough to give rise to new criticisms from Obama’s opponents regarding an arguably conciliatory foreign policy and disregard for a growing list of Iranian provocations. It is not only the seizure itself that has proven troubling to those who advocate for a more aggressive stance on such provocations; it was also the treatment of that incident by Iranian officials and the Revolutionary Guards who took charge of the seizure.
The Obama administration was eager to declare that the Americans were being treated well, but his critics have raised questions about this characterization by pointing to images that appeared in Iranian state media showing the 10 individuals on their knees with their hands on their heads. The Federalist pointed out that the dissemination of these images was itself a “clear violation of the Geneva conventions.” It also argued that the lone female sailor had been “forced to submit to Islamic law,” insofar as the images show that she was made to don a hijab.
The Federalist also said that Obama described the incident as having “no hostile intent” but instead being an example of one country helping another with a broken boat. But this characterization was apparently rejected not only by Obama’s American critics but also by key Iranian officials including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is arguably the closest thing the US has to a friend in the Iranian government.
Arutz Sheva reported on Wednesday that Zarif was among those Iranian officials who had demanded an apology for the Americans’ apparently unintentional entry into Iranian waters. Speaking on Iranian state television, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi said, “Mr. Zarif has adopted a strong and firm stance” and has demanded an apology from US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Some Iranian sources apparently went on to say that they had in fact received the requested apology. This sparked denials from the Obama administration via news outlets and social media, some of which were almost certainly aimed at heading off the inevitable escalation in criticism that would result from such reports.
There is no particular evidence that an official apology was made, and it is possible that the Iranian claims refer to an individual, statement by one of the American sailors, which was recorded while he was in Iranian custody. CNN broadcast this clip on Wednesday, in which the young man announces that the operators of the vessels were at fault for the mistake and that they were “sorry.”
CNN was quick to point out that there was not yet any way to tell whether these remarks were spontaneous on the part of the sailor, or whether they were elicited with Iranian prompting, or even under threat of torture or imprisonment. Human rights groups allege that the Iranian judiciary regularly sentences domestic arrestees on the basis of forced confessions, usually for vague political crimes.
An ex-Navy officer who was brought onto CNN to discuss the case nevertheless expressed disappointment at the sailor’s apology and said that he had “no business” offering it. Christopher Hammer added that the footage of that apology would be of “great value” to Iranian propaganda regardless of how the rest of the incident played out. And assuming that this is the only apology the Iranians received, their statements on the conclusion of the incident seem to bear that out.
What’s more, The Federalist argues that that propaganda is part of an extensive project by the Iranians in the wake of the July 14 nuclear agreement, with this latest incident completing “the humiliation of Barack Obama.” That is to say, critics feel that the casual response by President Obama to this incident shows weakness and gives the impression that there will be little to no response to even the most direct provocations.
Citing an editorial in Bloomberg View, an article in The Tower made this same point, characterizing the problem as Tehran “holding Obama’s foreign policy legacy hostage.” This argument had already been raised in the wake of previous incidents such as the test-firing of ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and the incident last month in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fired a barrage of unguided rockets within 1,500 yards of an American aircraft carrier.
A Time article in the aftermath of the capture of the American sailors also pointed out that it was the latest and arguably the most serious in a “series of provocations” undertaken by the Iranians and only lightly acknowledged by the Obama administration. In the case of each incident, critics have accused the president of effectively giving Tehran a pass in order to avoid the possibility of endangering the nuclear agreement, which Obama may consider to be his greatest foreign policy achievement.