You knew, when Iran detained 10 American sailors in its territorial waters just before President Obama delivered his State of the Union, that the reaction from the right was going to be ugly. But I must confess to watching the flood of tweets and other commentary from neoconservatives and their hawkish Washington allies with some awe: the neocons truly outdid themselves. This is not to say that the hawks aren’t without some valid points. Rather, they go so far beyond those points as to render their legitimate arguments as clownish asides amid a flurry of invective.
The cumulative reading of neoconservative commentary leaves you feeling that the incident in the Persian Gulf was something just short of a casus belli. Which isn’t really a surprise at all: much of the reactions were aimed at showing how terrible the nuclear deal with Iran, struck in July, really is. But few of these commentators have offered anything near a plausible alternative other than the increased prospect of war. Little of the commentary actually said Let’s go to war over this!—though Chris Christie came close in the most recent GOP presidential debate—but the intention was unmistakable.
A few themes among neoconservative reactions gave away the game. Take this tweet from the Israel Project‘s Omri Ceren: “I think a ‘hostile’ seizure of US sailors counts as an ‘attack.’” Or this one from the American Enterprise Institute‘s Danielle Pletka: “‘No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.’ So what’s up with those sailors in #Iran?” Oh! It’s an “attack” on America! A hostile military act against our military! Raise the alarms: America under attack! Ruin them! One can safely presume that Ceren and Pletka do not believe that attacks on America should go unanswered, that such attacks should be responded to in kind. I can’t really imagine them uttering the sentence, Iran just attacked us but we should keep our powder dry and not attack them back. That feels out of character.
Another theme that could not have been clearer, almost like it was coordinated on some neocon listserv, was that this was a “hostage” situation. Hudson‘s Michael Doran tweeted that Iran had “take(n) our people hostage.” Bloomberg View‘s Eli Lake, a friend of mine, who is capable of good reporting and sophisticated, if hawkish, analysis, wrote, after the incident had ended, “There is no hostage crisis now”—clearly trying to score some points by evoking the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. TIP’s Ceren, who tweeted up a veritable storm over the incident, was less subtle: “The 1970s called. They want their Iranian hostage crises back.”
Let’s be clear about a couple things. One: There. Was. No. Crisis. Sure, the Iranians could have saluted the US sailors and sent them on their way, but they were within their rights to seize them and see what was going on. Second: There. Were. No. Hostages. Lake, describing what went down during the encounter, said: “Iran’s handling of the situation violated international norms, and to pretend otherwise is—to borrow a phrase from sociology—to define deviancy down.” More on that in a moment, but while we’re on the subject of definitions, let’s look at an English one:
hostage noun hos·tage ?häs-tij
1 a: a person held by one party in a conflict as a pledge pending the fulfillment of an agreement
b: a person taken by force to secure the taker’s demands
2: one that is involuntarily controlled by an outside influence
None of those definitions fits with what went down on Tuesday night in the Persian Gulf. To claim otherwise is misleading, even intentionally dishonest. But honesty is not the goal here: these comments are meant to evoke a difficult period in US-Iran relations, when Iranians indeed committed a horrific act and seized the American embassy, taking staffers hostage and—here’s the crucial point—issued demands, such as the extradition of the Shah to Iran. This is not what happened on Tuesday night. It was not, per Ceren, “Iran arbitrarily seizing US sailors” or a “kidnapping.” No one—apart from these neocons, by implication—disputes that the American sailors were taken into detention because they had transgressed the boundaries of Iranian territorial waters.
This speaks to the larger point Glenn Greenwald made about CNN: anchors and commentators on the station could only portray this as Iranian aggression by simply ignoring the fact that the American boats went into Iran’s areas. Nothing was “arbitrary,” and no one was “kidnapped.” Ten American sailors were detained because of something ten American sailors (accidentally) did. That does not mean what they did was some horrible act for which they needed to be punished, but it was an act nonetheless.
An American Mistake
And this gets at another point. Neoconservatives are fond of decrying the Arab and Muslim world’s proclivity toward conspiracy theories. And, yes, these societies are rife with fanciful tales of secret collusion. But the neocons might be projecting here. Either that, or those neoconservative commentators letting loose on Sailorgate were being disingenuous. How else do you explain Pletka’s claim that Obama’s “big legacy partners are trying to embarrass him on [State of the Union] day”?
Or neoconservative favorite Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) telling CNN: “Rarely are matters coincidental when dealing with ayatollahs. It’s humiliating to have American sailors held hostage at the timing of the State of the Union”? The suggestion here, of course, is that Iran timed the incident to embarrass Obama during his speech.
That’s a really incredible suggestion. Everyone seems to have accepted the basic facts of the incident: some US marines aboard two boats ended up in Iranian territorial waters. Convicted liar Elliott Abrams is the only person I have seen doubt these facts, when he described the event as “the entry into Iranian waters (if that happened) by a boat that had lost its engines.” Abrams has doubts not about the engine troubles but that this happened in Iranian waters at all. Nevertheless, he’s the only one, and everyone else agrees. So by what magic power did Iran manage to lure two American boats into its territorial water in order to brilliantly score a propaganda coup just as Obama was about to deliver his State of the Union speech? The neocons don’t say—and probably for the best.
The Uses of International Law
The neoconservatives have made one valid point, however. The photographs and videos of the detained marines appear to violate the tenet of the Geneva Conventions that protect captured personnel from being used for propaganda purposes. That’s true, and it’s deplorable. But forgive me if I refuse to take this as a point scored by the neocons. Here’s what, again, convicted liar Elliott Abrams had to say about it:
Human Rights Watch, not known as a right-wing group, has noted that it appears to violate international agreements prohibiting the use of photos or videos of military detainees for propaganda purposes.
Elliott Abrams citing Human Rights Watch?! I never thought I’d see the day! One wonders when Elliott Abrams will chime in on Saudi bombings of hospitals in Yemen, or the U.S. bombing of the MSF hospital in Kunduz, or Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank, all regarded as a violations of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, when it comes to Israel, right-wing advocates either entirely ignore the Geneva Conventions (as a Google search reveals Abrams has) or make incredible logical contortions to justify the settlement project despite the agreements. Nevertheless, here’s the relevant passage from the Wall Street Journal article about the Iranians’ detention of the marines that Abrams links to:
Though Iran is a signatory to the applicable parts of the Geneva Conventions, experts on international law said that, based on what is known so far, the treaties might not formally apply because no armed conflict was under way.
But James Ross, legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch, said it has long been recognized that it is unlawful for governments to use photographs or videos of military detainees for propaganda purposes, including publicly releasing a “confession.”
“While the Geneva Conventions may not formally apply here, the Iranian government actions would appear to be contrary to the intention of the Geneva Conventions,” Mr. Ross said.
So it’s a little more complicated that various neocon commentators would have you believe. But the point stands: this public release of these videos was wrong. I don’t want to minimize that—unlike most neocons, I support violators of international law being held to account, even when they’re Israeli or American—but it does seem like a bit of a secondary issue.
Then there cropped up another issue of international law, that of whether the boat in question had been in “distress” and therefore afforded the right of “innocent passage” through territorial waters. Eli Lake, Elliott Abrams, and others can be forgiven for trying to score points off this: they had bad information. As it turned out—and I’d urge you to read Greenwald’s round-up and commentary on this issue—the boat’s engines had not failed and instead the passage of the American boats into Iranian waters was due to what Defense Secretary Ash Carter called “a navigational error.” With this new information in hand, and their talking point obviated, Lake, Abrams, and others will act quickly to update their posts.
Nonetheless, that the right is making such hay of these issues of international law, hilariously and hypocritically, seems only to be a result of the incident having been resolved so quickly. Early on, before the sailors had been released, the talking points were very different. Instead of an appeal to international laws none of them actually believe in, neocons were going after the same thing they’ve spent years going after: diplomacy with Iran. As I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the right took exactly the wrong lesson about what the effects of previous diplomacy with Iran had been on this non-crisis. It wasn’t the nuclear deal itself—which right-wing commentators said should be annulled post haste — but the actual hard work of diplomacy around the deal that laid the groundwork for a quick resolution to the incident. This seems patently obvious to everyone except neoconservative commentators.
Iran’s Domestic Politics
That leaves us with one final, and related, neocon talking point to dismantle. Here it is, from none other than the Foundation for Defense of Democracies‘ Mark Dubowitz, on Twitter: “Sailor detainment. IRGC accomplishes its goal. Humiliates US & Rouhani.” He’s talking about Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s moderate president. But it’s funny to see him finally talking about Iran as if the country actually does have internal politics. That’s because, for a long time, Dubowitz dismissed such dynamics out of hand. It was convenient, way back when, to pretend that there are no differences between Iranian political factions, that they’re all hardliners, in order to oppose diplomacy in any way shape or form.
Despite having made plenty of declarations, Dubowitz was never really an expert on Iran or its internal politics. Let’s turn, then, to someone who actually is an expert, to see how they interpreted events. Here’s the Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari:
The prompt release of the 10 U.S. Navy personnel captured Tuesday by Iran’s military shows that, finally, more sensible counsels are prevailing in Tehran. The early description of the Americans as “prisoners” and their mission as “snooping” was quickly abandoned. This is a victory for President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and other moderates. It appears that Mr. Rouhani was able to persuade Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, of the importance of keeping the agreement over Iran’s nuclear program on track and that on the heels of the fiasco that followed a mob storming the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran this month, the Islamic Republic could ill-afford another international uproar.
This runs exactly counter to the messages Dubowitz and his neoconservative comrades have been hawking for years: that there are no moderates in the Islamic Republic, so a deal would be impossible, and that diplomacy with Iran would never help moderate Iran’s other transgressions. Of course, this is not to say that Iran will change overnight. As I’ve written, that’s simply not going to happen. Moreover, the situation inside Iran is likely to get worse before it gets better, owing to the very power struggle in which we’ve seen Rouhani land a blow here.
When it comes to Iran, Sailorgate is only the latest incident in a string of many where neoconservatives have been simply unable to get just about anything right. We can all breathe a sigh of relief that they have been out of power for some time, and perhaps continue hoping that their discredited ideology doesn’t find its way back into the halls of foreign policy power. This ideological cadre’s response to the brief incident in the Persian Gulf shows exactly how badly they would have responded.