Let’s be very clear about this. You are being led to believe that “the story” about this incident is that the U.S. Navy screwed up. Its boat crews were ill-prepared for the transit on 12 January 2016, during which armed Iranian forces seized the boats, raised the Iranian flag on them, and put the American sailors in detention. The task force commander in charge of the boats exercised poor judgment in authorizing the transit. Blah blah blah; nine people are being “disciplined.” The Navy is taking a fall on its sword for the public’s benefit.
But without excusing the Navy (and without assuming we’ve been told everything relevant either), it is easily possible to establish that you are being misled about this whole thing.
All it takes is acknowledging the fact that Iran violated international maritime law, by seizing the Navy riverine boats and detaining the crews.
That means this is all Iran’s fault. It’s only because of what Iran did that this became an “incident” to begin with.
The U.S. Navy, ill-prepared or not, and whether or not its people made tactical mistakes, had no reason, as a routine matter, to expect the Iranians to seize the boats and the crewmen.
Let that sink in.
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.
I alluded to that point in analyses and comments to readers right after the incident (e.g., here, here, and here). My original comments stand in every respect after today’s briefing from the Navy on the investigation of the January incident. And the concern that Iran violated international law is one of those respects.
If Iran had behaved according to maritime law, this incident would never have happened. If the U.S. Navy sailors “strayed” into Iranian waters, what Iran should have done is very clear. On encountering the U.S. Navy boats, and if the boats were not deemed reasonably to be exercising the right of innocent passage, the Iranians should have opened tactical communications, and informed them – assuming this is what Iran wanted – that they needed to depart Iranian waters.
With one boat disabled, the Iranians could have offered assistance, although that isn’t obligatory under law (it is generally expected under the conventions of seafarers). The Iranians could have remained in communication with the boats, for as long as was satisfactory to the Iranians, and kept them under surveillance on the same principle. A discussion on-scene about bringing in assistance from other U.S. Navy assets would have been appropriate, if that was something the U.S. Navy was working on. To approach the riverine boats, if they were stranded in Iranian waters, another U.S. Navy ship would have wanted to be in communication with, at a minimum, the Iranian patrol boats on scene.
The Iranians would have been well within their rights to keep forces on station observing the entire process, and even to bring in other assets with bigger guns – but a non-bellicose posture – if they thought that was necessary. What they were not within their rights to do was violate the sovereign immunity of U.S. Navy ships (which include riverine patrol boats) by seizing them and detaining their crews.
The a priori circumstances of the encounter in question were indisputably non-belligerent. Outside of a state of belligerency, the principle of sovereign immunity means that the warships of a foreign nation may not be detained or seized in another nation’s territorial waters. Iran violated that principle.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter deviated from his prepared remarks to Congress back in March to stress that point. And, as the Tower noted (above), the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, opened his brief with that point today (Thursday, 30 June).
The reason those concerns aren’t going anywhere, as a policy matter, is that it’s not up to Richardson or Carter to raise them with Iran. It’s up to John Kerry and Barack Obama.
John McCain has been on this from the beginning. But there’s a limit to what he can do about it as well. Addressing the real reason for the January incident is something only the president and his top foreign policy staff can do.
Instead of addressing it with policy actions, Obama has chosen to downplay Iran’s violation, and focus on faulting the U.S. Navy.
Form your own opinion of what the Navy did wrong, if you’re feeling competent to do that; from an objective, expert standpoint, we haven’t been given enough information to draw firm conclusions.
(The biggest thing we haven’t been told, by far, is what other U.S. assets were doing, or were ordered to do, as the situation developed tactically. The public has been presented with only a narrow slice of all the relevant information, as if that slice is everything that matters to deciding what went wrong and how to correct problems.)
I am reserving judgment, and suggest others reserve it as well. I know everyone feels competent to pass judgment on the behavior of the sailors in detention, and certainly, “creditable” is not the word I would use to describe it. But those sailors’ behavior will never be the tiebreaker for the credibility of the United States, or the sense of inviolability there needs to be about basic maritime law. Obama’s behavior will.
It weighs with me that the CNO is willing to say publicly that there was fault at the tactical and operational level. I take that to mean there’s some “there” there. But it took a lot more than the few, vaguely framed “details” we’ve been given to make this incident unfold as it did. Without knowing more, we have no way to judge what the big picture really was, in terms of errors by the Navy.
Whereas there is no question what Iran did wrong – or that Iran’s action was the thing that was wrong. There are no circumstances in which what Iran did could have been right.
Don’t be distracted from that reality. Here’s why it matters.
1. It weakens America’s credibility badly, for the world to see Obama (a) ignore an Iranian violation of maritime law; (b) beg for the release of American sailors and military assets that should never have been seized in the first place; and then (c) focus blame on his own navy – through the mechanism of a media-amplified narrative – for Iran’s act of bad faith.
The Iranians didn’t seize the U.S. boats “because” they strayed into Iranian waters. The narrative being drummed into your head that they did is false. Seizing the boats was not an ordinary action; it’s not a lawful action. Iran had a political reason of some kind to violate international law and seize the boats.
It’s not for the U.S. Navy to sort that out, however. Admiral Richardson can’t call Obama out explicitly, for Obama’s failure to do a job only the president can do.
But Richardson can point out, once again, that Iran violated international law, even if he doesn’t draw the public’s attention to the correct conclusion proceeding from that point. We can, and must, then draw the correct conclusion ourselves.