UPDATED: SecDef Says Crew Got Lost
WASHINGTON: Iran violated international law by seizing two disabled US Navy vessels adrift in Iranian waters, according to the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Iranians provided assurances that the sailors were being afforded “the care [and] the proper courtesy that you’d expect. We’ve also most importantly received assurances they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly.”
UPDATE: “They obviously had misnavigated … that’s how they believe they ended up in this circumstance,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Fusion network Thursday in Miami. “They did not report this navigational error at the time. It may be that they were trying to sort it out at the time they encountered Iranian boats. … We don’t know that fully yet.” He said the crew had not been ordered to test Iranian responses by entering their waters.” UPDATE ENDS
But McCain’s point is simple. The Iranians had no legal right to seize the boats or detain the crews in the first place if their boats were without power, as initial reports indicate, whether they were in Iranian or international waters. UPDATE: (My understanding is that these boats, which were not behaving in a hostile manner, should not have been seized regardless of whether they were under power or not. Normal behavior would have been for the Iranians to hail them, question them, offer assistance and then escort them back to international waters.)
“The Administration is pretending as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. Vice President Joe Biden described the incident as ‘standard nautical practice.’ That assertion is patently false,” McCain says in a statement released this afternoon. “What’s worse, by failing to affirm basic principles of international law, it places our Navy and Coast Guard vessels and the men and women who sail them at increased risk in the future.
McCain, who it needs to be noted was a naval aviator, argues that “sovereign immune vessels like navy ships and boats do not lose their sovereign immune status when they are in distress at sea.” He says that under international law they “are exempt from detention, boarding, or search. Their crews are not subject to detention or arrest.”
A briefing by a naval legal expert at the Naval War College, retired Capt. Pete Pedrozo, supports McCain’s position. And two other scholarly legal papers I found online also support the senator’s assertion that a naval vessel adrift cannot be seized.
Senior Democrats, clearly hoping to bolster support for the Iranian nuclear deal, said Iran returned the sailors quickly as a sort of unexpected side effect of the deal. McCain, not surprisingly, was having none of it.
“Furthermore, the suggestion by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others that the Iranian nuclear deal somehow aided in these sailors’ return is ludicrous. These sailors were ‘arrested’ in apparent violation of international law and centuries of maritime custom and tradition. Moreover, I doubt the four Americans still languishing in Iranian prisons and their families take great solace in assertions that this new diplomatic relationship with Iran ‘has served us well.’”
Just to make clear what McCain and many other Republican really had in mind, the SASC chairman said: “This Administration’s craven desire to preserve the dangerous Iranian nuclear deal at all costs evidently knows no limit.”
The other issue enraging Republicans was the release by Iran of photos of the American crews kneeling with hands placed behind heads. There’s also a photo that appears to show the one female crew member wearing a head covering. The Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war, is explicit in barring insulting treatment: “Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” Now, Iran will probably argue the sailors were not prisoners of war since they were “arrested.” Well….