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Kerry Thanks Iran for Resolving the Crisis It Created


Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

After the return of 10 U.S. sailors from Iranian custody Wednesday morning, the Obama administration has been eager to claim a diplomatic victory. What looked like the beginning of a hostage crisis on Tuesday night, unfolding as the president gave his last State of the Union address, was instead resolved by Wednesday morning.


The key to this success, we are told, was that the U.S. and Iran had a reliable diplomatic channel because of nuclear negotiations to defuse this potential crisis. On Wednesday, a senior State Department official briefed reporters about five phone calls between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. Kerry made it clear that the most important issue was getting the Americans released, unharmed -- turning this into "a good story for both of us," Kerry told Zarif, according to the briefer.


You can't argue with results. The sailors are freed and safe. There is no hostage crisis now. When British sailors were detained in 2007 by Iran in a similar incident, it took nearly two weeks for Iran to release them. In this case it took less than a day. Kerry himself said Wednesday the resolution of the issue was "a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping us safe, secure and strong."

But trumpeting this as a diplomatic success also presents a moral hazard. Iran's handling of the situation violated international norms, and to pretend otherwise is -- to borrow a phrase from sociology -- to define deviancy down.


Let's start with the incident itself. Two small U.S. sea craft transiting between Kuwait and Bahrain strayed into Iranian territorial waters because of a mechanical failure, according to the U.S. side. This means the boats were in distress.


That is hardly unprecedented. International maritime law spells out the appropriate response -- and in a situation like this, it does not give Iran the right to board these boats or detain the sailors, as the Iranian navy did. And yet Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning described the incident at Farsi Island as "standard nautical practice." On CBS, he said: "One of the boats had engine failure and drifted into Iranian waters. The Iranians picked up both boats, as we have picked up Iranian boats that needed to be rescued." Biden added, "That is the way nations should do it."


Senator John McCain, a Republican and former Navy pilot, a few hours later pointed out how absurd this was. “Under international law, sovereign immune vessels like navy ships and boats do not lose their sovereign immune status when they are in distress at sea," he said. "Under international law, sovereign immune naval vessels are exempt from detention, boarding, or search. Their crews are not subject to detention or arrest."


Then there is the issue of how the crews of these boats were treated. The U.S. military, no doubt, is learning more about that now as the sailors are being debriefed, but Iranian news outlets already published photos of the sailors kneeling with their hands behind their heads. There is now a video circulating online that appears to show one of the sailors apologizing to a reporter.


Such photos and confessions are violations in and of themselves of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the circulation of photos of detainees. When asked about this Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, "I mean, generally speaking, you’re not supposed to show images of detained prisoners of war." But he also said the State Department was still checking the authenticity of the photos and video that were released online.


Read the full story from Bloomberg View.