The 10 American sailors captured by Iran this week were not covered under protocols of the Geneva Convention because the United States is not at war with Iran, the State Department said on Thursday.
The determination means that the Obama administration will not accuse Iran of violating the convention’s protections for prisoners of war, as many critics accused Iran of doing with its treatment of the sailors.
“If we were at war with Iran or another country, then, yes I think you could look at what happened as a breach of the protocols in there,” he added. “But they don’t apply.”
Administration critics have long accused President Obama of being too soft on Iran in order to speed through the global agreement on its nuclear powers. The pact, which is set to be implemented in coming days, lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its ability to build a nuclear weapon.
Some analysts have said that Iran likely violated terms of the convention by distributing videos and images of the U.S. sailors.
The photos show American sailors on their knees and with their hands behind their heads, as well as sitting in what appears to be a detainment cell. In a video interview with one sailor, the American apologizes for the “mistake” of entering Iranian waters.
“The video, on the face of it, is difficult to watch,” Kirby said. “There’s no question about that.”
Some observers have argued that the release of those images and video may have violated Geneva Convention prohibitions on subjecting prisoners of war to “insults and public curiosity.”
Instead, Kirby on Thursday called the release “unhelpful."
“Its use for propaganda purposes is inappropriate,” he added. “I think we can safely say that. Nobody wants to see that.”
The American sailors were picked up by Iran on Tuesday and held for less than 24 hours while officials engaged in frantic diplomatic discussions to free them.
The Obama administration has downplayed concerns that the nuclear deal has left Iran emboldened, prompting the sailors' detention. Officials called the sailors’ quick release evidence of the powers of the U.S.'s diplomatic engagement.