President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may be celebrating ‘diplomacy’ for achieving the release of detained American sailors. Let’s put aside that treating Iran like a responsible partner is akin to slapping an arsonist on the back after he douses a fire which he needlessly set. And let’s put aside that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy reportedly ‘confiscated’ some of the communications gear and equipment from the two U.S. Navy boats. In recent hours, the IRGC and the Islamic Republic’s media more broadly have begun releasing photos not only of the capture and surrender of the U.S. sailors but also showing them in captivity.
Let’s be clear: Photographing the prisoners to broadcast and use as propaganda is a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention, explicitly clause 13, which protects prisoners against exposure to “insults” or their exploitation for “public curiosity.” The lack of White House and State Department response seem to suggest that Obama, Kerry, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power only care about international law when Americans are its victims.
Is the Iranian broadcast of the humiliation of American sailors simply too minor to worry about, given the greater stakes of the Iran nuclear deal and rapprochement? After all, doesn’t the relatively quick resolution of the matter empower the moderates at the hands of the hardliners?
Again, Obama and Kerry would be foolish to believe that the relative moderates have come out on top in this case. Many diplomats compare the detention of the American sailors to the capture of their British counterparts in 2007. Then, the IRGC held the British sailors for almost two weeks. For many Western diplomats, that episode ended when the sailors came home. What they did not know until later was that footage (now removed from Youtube) of their captivity and humiliation would make its way into campaign commercials for various hardline candidates including then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 20-minute long infomercials. To humiliate the Great Satan is a major shot of adrenalin for the IRGC and Iranian nationalists.
Kerry is aloof, and for all of Obama’s talk of multilateralism and multiculturalism, the president is naïve about the currency in which Iran trades. Prestige matters. To allow humiliation of Americans empowers those ideologically committed in their hatred of America and Americans. To fail to respond justifies the IRGC’s gamble in targeting Americans and presages further attacks.