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Defense Secretary Carter: Iran’s Treatment of Sailors “Inconsistent with International Law”

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called Iran’s treatment of the American sailors it detained in January “outrageous” and “inconsistent with international law” during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Carter, who credited the nuclear deal for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, nonetheless acknowledged that “our concerns with Iran persist.” After singling out North Korea and the Islamic Republic as regional threats, Carter argued:

I want to say some words about Iran’s treatment of our sailors on Farsi island back in January. As I made clear then Iran’s actions were outrageous, unprofessional and inconsistent with international law and nothing we’ve learned about the circumstances of this incident since then changes that fact. It’s because of Iran’s recklessness and destabilizing behavior in that part of the world that DOD remains full speed ahead in our investments, our planning, and our posture to ensure that we deter Iran’s aggression, deter its malign influence and uphold our ironclad commitments to our regional friends and allies, especially Israel, to whom we maintain an unwavering, and unbreakable commitment.

Carter’s criticism of the Iranian capture and treatment of the American sailors did not appear in the prepared text (.pdf) of his testimony, which was published on the committee’s website.

The secretary’s remarks came shortly after an Iranian general boasted that the Islamic Republic retrieved over 13,000 pages of intelligence from the sailors’ computers, GPS devices, and maps. The Washington Post characterized the latest revelation as yet another instance of Iran “[exploiting] the incident for propaganda purposes” and “angering American officials.”

Other incidents cited by the Post included broadcasting images of the sailors kneeling at gunpoint, of one sailor crying, of a drone flying near a U.S. aircraft carrier on the day of the capture, and of a video apology from one of the sailors, as well as the awarding of medals to the Iranian officers involved in the seizure.

Shortly after the incident, Sen. John McCain (R – Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised the possibility that Iran violated international law by detaining the naval boats and their crews.

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. Under international law, sovereign immune naval vessels are exempt from detention, boarding, or search. Their crews are not subject to detention or arrest.

The broadcast of the images of the detained sailors has also been cited by some experts as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

The section of Carter’s testimony regarding Iran’s treatment of the sailors is embedded below.

[Photo: Glenn Fawcett / Department of Defense ]