Obama administration downplays Iran's capture of US sailors

Obama administration downplays Iran's capture of US sailors

The Obama administration on Wednesday downplayed a fight with Iran over 10 American sailors held by that country after their vessels traveled into Iranian waters.

Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLobbying world Kerry: Trump not pursuing 'smart' or 'clever' plan on North Korea Tillerson will not send high-ranking delegation to India with Ivanka Trump: report MORE thanked Iran for taking care of the U.S. sailors and cast the back-and-forth with Tehran as a victory for diplomacy that ensured their freedom in less than 24 hours.

“I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” Kerry said during a speech at National Defense University on Wednesday. “And in fact, it is clear that today is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong.”

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The administration’s critics, however, insist that Iran’s seizure of the two American boats is proof that the U.S. has lost the upper hand just days before the landmark deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program goes into force. 

Indeed, the defining image for many Americans may be one of the sailors on their knees, hands behind their heads, taken from a video released by Iran.

In a separate video, a sailor apologizes for “our mistake” entering Iranian waters. It’s unclear if the sailor was coerced or under duress, or if the video had been manipulated. 

Iran’s distribution of the images may violate Geneva Convention prohibitions on treating prisoners of war as a “public curiosity,” critics speculated.

“What I saw on TV was American sailors on their knees before the Iranians. That ticks me off,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told reporters off the House floor.

“To even say, ‘Well, there’s a little silver lining in the mushroom cloud of the president’s Iranian deal,’ I think it just doesn’t match up,’ ” he added.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump claimed that the only reason the sailors were released is because Iran will “get $100 billion next week, maybe even this week,” under the terms of the nuclear accord.

“If it happened two weeks from now, they would have kept them and they could have kept them for a long period of time,” Trump said on MSNBC. 

Some Iranian voices, too, have taken a tougher tone. 

The incident “should be a lesson to troublemakers in the U.S. Congress,” the head of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, was quoted as saying by the Tasnim news agency.

“As one of those ‘troublemakers,’ I take his words seriously,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) retorted in a statement. “Congress and the president should not be swayed by Iran’s intentional attempts to humiliate America.”

Kerry on Wednesday said that the 10 Navy sailors — nine men and one woman —appear to have been “well taken care of.”

They were “provided with blankets and food and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today,” he said.

Their two small boats were picked up on Tuesday en route from Kuwait to Bahrain, when they seem to have drifted into Iranian waters. They were taken to a small island controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and then were brought to the mainland, fed and given water, according to pictures released by Iran.

They have received medical treatment and have been debriefed by Navy officials, a senior defense official said. Those Navy officials have not yet had the opportunity to share what they learned, said a senior defense official. 

Administration officials are framing the incident as Iran responding to U.S. vessels in “distress,” even though it is not yet clear exactly why the vessels ended up in Iranian territorial waters and whether it was a technical or navigational problem.

The senior defense official defended that characterization, saying “distress” meant that “something is wrong with your vessel.” 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) complained Wednesday that his committee received “very limited information” about the episode, “which is inappropriate.”

“We’re trying to figure out why we didn’t get information in a timely manner,” Nunes said.

The sailors’ brief detainment threatened to overshadow President Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. Obama did not mention their captivity in the speech but instead said that the “world has avoided another war” by striking the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Many critics seized on the apparent oversight, but the White House on Wednesday defended its decision.

“At the White House, we reached the conclusion that further elevating the situation by including it in the State of the Union address would not be the most effective way for us to assure the safe return of our sailors,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “And I think the outcome, which is the release of these sailors just hours after the president delivered his address, is a pretty powerful endorsement of that strategy.”

The U.S., Iran and five other world powers negotiated the nuclear accord last summer.

Kerry on Wednesday speculated it will be finalized “likely within the next coming days.”

At that point, tens of billions of dollars that have been shielded from Iran by international sanctions will flow into the country

On Wednesday, the House passed legislation that would make it harder for the administration to lift sanctions on Iran in a nearly party-line 191-106 vote.

However, more than 130 lawmakers missed the vote due to Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) decision not to keep the vote open for longer than the allotted 15 minutes. The House appears ready to take a second vote on the legislation when it returns from a week-and-a-half-long recess, but the sanctions may already have lifted by then.

Since the accord deal was reached last year, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been in regular discussions about regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, efforts to bring peace to Syria and other issues.

On Tuesday, the two top diplomats spoke over the phone at least five times, according to a senior State Department official.

The effort appears to be part of a calculation that the Iran deal could provide an avenue to bring out the more moderate forces within Iran and begin its engagement with the rest of the world, though the administration has taken pains to deny that that is a goal. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that it played a role on Wednesday.

“Frankly, I think that the diplomacy that was established during the negotiation of the accord helped negotiate that speedy — I think it’s really even a speedy resolution of the situation,” she told reporters on Capitol Hill.  

Jordan Fabian contributed.