Iran’s detention of U.S. sailors clouds Obama’s address

Justin Sink
Bloomberg News

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 allowed to proceed with their journey through the Persian Gulf.

But questions over how long the soldiers had been detained — and when they would be freed — again thrust questions about Obama’s handling of foreign policy into the foreground.

“So long as our sailors remain in Iranian hands, platitudes about the state of the union from President Obama tonight will ring hollow,” Representative Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican, tweeted Tuesday. “As commander-in-chief, President Obama needs to do everything in his power to liberate these sailors from Iranian custody.”

Cory Gardner, a 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, the House and the Senate,” Gardner said. “Perhaps that even means a delay to the start of the State of the Union tonight to talk to talk about exactly what happened.”

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.”

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. The Associated Press, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that one of the boats experienced mechanical trouble and ran aground before they were picked up by the Iranians.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told CNN in an interview that the Iranian government had provided “assurances that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly.” Obama was briefed on the incident, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yet officials did not respond when asked how long the soldiers would remain in Iranian custody. 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.

“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.”

“The White House tonight is a hotbed of cold feet,” Cotton said.

Earnest said that the United States “has been concerned with the kind of provocative, destabilizing actions that have been a hallmark of Iranian behavior,” but that was why the Obama administration had sought the Iranian nuclear deal.

“We continue to be concerned about this situation,” he said. “That precisely is why the president made preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon a top national security priority.”

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.