Real Clear Defense

Iran's Treatment of U.S. Sailors and Contempt for International Agreements

President, Yorktown Institute
Adjunct Fellow
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on January 17, 2016 in the capital Tehran. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on January 17, 2016 in the capital Tehran. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S.’s unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian assets overwhelms the still fuzzy details of Iran’s seizure of two U.S. Navy small riverine boats. It shouldn’t. Iran’s capture and treatment of ten U.S. Navy sailors violates maritime custom and international treaties. Is there any reason to believe that the Iranian clerics will honor this one?

Here are the facts. Two riverine command boats likely strayed into Iranian territorial waters as they transited the roughly 350 mile journey from Kuwait to Bahrain. The Navy Times reports that the boats were heading for a fueling rendezvous when they went off course. Riverine command boats are approximately 50 feet long with a beam of 12 feet and lightly armed.

Naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, (IRGC) Iran’s version of the political commissars that suffused the Soviet military, intercepted the U.S. small craft as they passed Farsi, one of seven Iranian islands in the Gulf on which there is a small naval base.

Here, the picture becomes clearer. The boats and their crews were taken to Farsi Island. The IRGC forced the crews to kneel with their hands behind them and made maximum propaganda use of the photos. The pictures include a female sailor who was, no doubt, forced to wear a head covering. A statement of apology that appears to have been made under duress was obtained from the Navy lieutenant who was in charge of the two boats. U.S. diplomatic efforts resulted in the return of crews and boats within 24 hours of their capture. Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Iran for releasing the sailors. The mainstream media decided that the incident was closed.

They’re wrong. The riverine boat incident is not just a tangled story of mechanical, navigational, and political jockeying. It is, rather, an additional insight into the outlaw character of a regime whose contempt for international order is at fundamental odds with our respect for this order.

1. According to custom and law, vessels of all states enjoy the right of innocent passage through territorial seas. China, for example, acknowledged this right in late October when it objected to, but took no action, asthe destroyer USS Larsen passed within 12 miles of a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea.

China is no respecter of the international order—as its actions toward neighbors over disputed islands in the region continually demonstrate. And the combat power of an American destroyer cannot be compared to the small arms that riverine boats carry. But Beijing’s non-action this past autumn represents at least an understanding of law and custom’s protection of the right of innocent passage.

2. According to the Law of the Sea Treaty which the current Iranian government signed in 1982 and the U.S. observes despite non-ratification, warships “enjoy sovereign immunity from interference by the authorities of nations other than the flag nation,” in peace that is. “Police and port authorities,” continues the same treaty, “may board a warship only with the permission of the commanding officer.” And, “a warship cannot be required to consent to an onboard search of inspection…”

Operating in an area as dangerous and complex as the Persian Gulf, it is as difficult to imagine that the Navy lieutenant who was the officer in charge of the two riverine boats was as unaware of this provision as he was willing to invite the IRGC aboard.

3. Iran is a signatory to the Geneva Convention. While we are not at war with Iran, the Geneva Convention’s Article 3(c) prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment,”and the filming of detainees. The photographs speak for themselves. They show the humiliation and degrading of American sailors. It cannot be imagined that international treaties’ sanction against outrages in war permits them in peace. Iran violated the spirit of the treaty it signed.

A state that acted within the boundaries of recognized custom, international law, and treaties it had signed would have assisted the Navy sailors if mechanical, navigational, or communications problems had placed them in its territorial waters, and sent them on their way. Providing assistance to mariners is codified in various international agreements for good reason. The sea is a harsh mistress. Helping others in distress regardless of their flag or actions goes back at least to the Old Testament when God saves the disobedient Jonah from drowning when his shipmates have tossed him overboard into a pitching sea.

By contrast to Iran’s behavior the U.S. Coast Guard in early 2014 sent its icebreaker, Polar Star, at considerable risk to crew and ship, to rescue the Russian research ship Academik Shokalskiy and the Chinese research ship, Xue Long, which were trapped in Antarctic ice. This was a few weeks before Russia invaded Crimea and after a long series of incidents with the U.S. and its allies in the region over territorial issues in the South and East China Sea.

Iran’s recent actions in the Persian Gulf show its disregard for international agreements such as the one it will benefit from with the return of billions of dollars of frozen assets.

The incident at sea shows that the current U.S. administration’s trust in Iran is as misplaced as Iran’s treatment of our sailors was shameful.