Iranian Detention of U.S. Sailors Clouds Obama Address

Updated on
IRAN ECON

An Iranian national flag flies from a flagpole in a residential district of Tehran on Aug. 24, 2015.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
  • 10 sailors traveling in Persian Gulf held by Iranian Forces
  • Administration says Iran assures detainees will be released

Just hours before President Barack Obama was set to deliver his final State of the Union address, reports that 10 U.S. sailors had been detained by Iran were threatening to overshadow the prime time address to the nation.

Senior administration officials worked quickly to quell concerns over the incident, saying they had assurances from the Iranian government that the sailors were being treated well and would be released soon. But questions over how long they had been detained -- and when they would be freed -- spurred Republicans criticism of Obama’s handling of foreign policy.

“Maybe it’s the situation where we strayed into their territorial waters, hopefully we can resolve it quickly, but it’s just one of those situations where it couldn’t come at a worse time,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “It reinforces two stereotypes: that the Iranians were on the prowl and President Obama isn’t very well respected."

A defense official said the U.S. had lost contact with two small U.S. naval craft that were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday said that the boats entered Iranian territorial waters at 4:30 p.m. the previous day. Ten sailors were taken to the nearby Farsi island, according to a statement on the Guards’ news website, Sepahnews.ir. The crew is safe and “in good shape,” the Guards said.

The Associated Press reported that Iran planned to release the sailors by Wednesday morning.

Call for Delay

Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested in an interview with CNN that the administration might consider delaying the speech so that it could brief Congress on the incident.

“The White House needs to be honest and transparent as quickly as possible with the members of the Congress,” Gardner said. “Perhaps that even means a delay to the start of the State of the Union tonight to talk about exactly what happened.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said in a statement he hoped "the president will soon update the American people." Jen Psaki, the White House communications director, told CNN the White House wasn’t planning to tweak the speech to address the situation in Iran.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters that the U.S. was “working to resolve the situation such that any U.S. personnel are returned to their normal deployment.”

Obama was briefed on the incident as he prepared for the speech to Congress and the nation, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The murky circumstances provided Republicans a new opportunity to question the wisdom of the deal with Iran, reached by the U.S. and five other world powers, to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the lifting of sanctions could come within days if Iran completes the steps dictated under the international agreement reached in July.

‘Hostile Action’

“This kind of openly hostile action is not surprising -- exactly what I and so many others predicted when President Obama was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran,” Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN.

Cotton said the nuclear deal would “embolden” Iranian aggression toward the U.S. and its allies. Noting reports that senior administration officials had said there was no hostile intent on the part of Iran, Cotton accused the administration of “apologizing for Iran.”

In addition to solid Republican opposition to the nuclear agreement, Obama is under pressure from fellow Democrats to punish Iran for its recent ballistic missile tests.

Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, and Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who’s a member of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said Monday they want the administration to act on additional sanctions after the missile tests that Iran conducted late last year.

Even as the incident at sea became entangled in U.S. politics, it touched on the political divide in Iran. While President Hassan Rouhani has staked his political future on the sanctions relief promised in the Iran nuclear deal, the Persian Gulf is patrolled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps whose hard-line members oppose any accommodation with the U.S.

The Treasury Department last month was said to be close to announcing sanctions against several companies and individuals for their ties to Iran’s ballistic missile program. No such sanctions have been issued yet.

The incident comes as polls show national security fears spiking among the electorate. A survey released last month by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News showed that four in 10 Americans believe national security and terrorism should be the government’s top priority, more than any other topic. That was an increase of 19 points from April of last year, when job creation and economic growth was the top concern of most Americans.

A poll from CBS News and the New York Times released earlier this month found that just a third of Americans approve of the president’s handling of foreign policy. More than half -- 52 percent -- disapprove of the way Obama is dealing with crises in the world.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE