(CNSNews.com) – Two Republican senators stepped up their criticism Thursday of Iran’s “humiliating” treatment of U.S. sailors who allegedly strayed into Iranian waters last week, slamming the administration’s response to the sensitive incident.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) detained 10 sailors and two small patrol vessels for around 14 hours, after what U.S. Central Command said were “indications of a mechanical issue” with one of the boats’ diesel engine.
Iranian media in an apparent propaganda exercise then repeatedly broadcast imagery of the Americans kneeling on a deck at gunpoint, hands clasped behind their heads, and of one of the sailors apologizing for inadvertently entering Iran’s territorial waters.
Footage also showed IRGC personnel examining weapons, documents and U.S. passports, and the detained sailors – including one woman with a scarf draped over her hair – being held overnight, reportedly at an Iranian naval base on the island of Farsi.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he found the episode “personally offensive.”
Speaking during a press conference in Washington with several other GOP senators, he described it as “the humiliation of American servicemen and women on the deck of their ship, forcing them to kneel with their hands clasped behind their necks in gross violation of all international law.”
McCain, in reference to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, said all ships, including Navy vessels, “enjoy the right under international law to conduct innocent passage in the territorial seas of another coastal nation.”
“While they’re humiliating American sailors and broadcasting it throughout the Middle East, our secretary of state [John Kerry] is thanking them – is thanking them for releasing them the next day,” McCain said.
“Our vice president, who should know better, is saying, well this is standard nautical procedure. Well it’s not – it’s a gross violation of law, it’s a humiliation.”
McCain, a Navy combat veteran, slammed the administration: “Our servicemen and women deserve better than this kind of leadership, that does nothing in response to forcing them to kneel under the weapon of some two-bit Iranian revolutionary guard.”
In an earlier statement, McCain also addressed a related legal aspect.
“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.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said Thursday she found the incident “absolutely outrageous.”
She noted that Kerry, in a statement after the sailors’ release, had expressed his “gratitude to the Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving the matter.”
“Never mind that our sailors were in a position where they were arrested at gunpoint and were put on their knees and hands,” Ayotte said. “And Iran of course put those images out to embarrass the United States of America.”
‘Anywhere the enemy oversteps the lines of Iran’s national interests, stop it with force’
McCain’s comments on Vice President Joe Biden referred to an interview on CBS News on the day of the incident.
Asked whether the U.S. had apologized to Iran for drifting into its territorial waters after the reported mechanical problem, Biden said no.
“There’s nothing to apologize for. When you have a problem with the boat, do you apologize the boat had a problem? No,” he said.
“And there was no looking for any apology. This was, this was just standard nautical practice.”
In describing the situation, Biden also portrayed the Iranians’ action as one of coming to the aid of U.S. sailors who were “in distress.”
By contrast, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei depicted it differently when during a speech Wednesday he praised the IRGC for detaining the Americans.
“They showed Iran’s identity and strength in the face of the enemy’s aggression,” he said, urging other Iranian officials to “act similarly in all fields, and anywhere the enemy oversteps the lines of Iran’s national interests, stop it with force.”
In his statement on the day of the incident, Kerry said the fact the issue was resolved peacefully was “a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
He did not comment publicly then on the images of the kneeling sailors released by Iranian authorities.
Five days later, in interviews with Fox News and CNN, Kerry was asked his reaction to the images, and described himself as angry and frustrated.
He told Fox he had immediately contacted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and “indicated our disgust.”
On CNN, Kerry said Zarif had “understood the gravity of the situation” and responded “promptly.”
Kerry indicated that the images had been made public by the Iranian military, not Zarif’s foreign ministry.
He declined to say whether the U.S. threatened to hold up the then-imminent implementation of the nuclear deal had the sailors not been released.
“Suffice it to say that I made it crystal clear how serious this was,” he said. “And within a matter of hours, we had an agreement that this was going to be resolved.”