Images of a U.S. sailor crying in custody are being broadcast on Iran’s state television as the latest propaganda salvo from the Iranian government in the wake of its provocative highly controversial January arrest of 10 American sailors in their waters. The latest move prompted a condemnation from the U.S. Navy, calling the sailors' treatment "outrageous and unacceptable." has prompted a strong condemnation of the entire incident from the Navy.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has been playing images of the arrest and detention of the sailors, riverines transiting from Bahrain to Kuwait in riverine command boats, since shortly after their Jan. 12 arrest.
The new images sparked a fierce response from the Navy.
"As Secretary [of State John] Kerry has said, we are disgusted by the exploitation of our Sailors in Iranian propaganda," said Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, spokesman for Naval Forces Central Command, in a statement. "The detention of our personnel was outrageous and unacceptable."
The sailors were arrested by Iranian Revolutionary Guard sailors when their boats entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Legal experts have said this treatment appears to have violated the sailors' rights to innocent passage under international law. Navy officials say the sailors were likely taking an ill-advised shortcut to meet up with a refueling vessel.
In some of the most extensive on-the-record comments from the Navy to date on Iran's treatment the detention of the sailors' treatment, Stephens said the Iranians should have escorted the riverines from their waters and offered assistance if mechanical issues prevented them from complying immediately.
"Professional mariners understand that it is a duty and obligation to assist other mariners who suffer mechanical problems or who find themselves off track at sea," Stephens said. statement continued. "The responsible action for the Iranians to have taken upon discovering our RCBs in their waters would have been to calmly and peacefully direct our RCBs out of their territorial waters or offer assistance if the apparent mechanical issues in one of the boats prevented them from departing immediately.
"It's outrageous and unacceptable that our Sailors were held at gunpoint and detained. We are grateful diplomacy worked at the end of the day, but it would never have come to that had the Iranian maritime forces involved behaved professionally and responsibly."
The U.S. Navy has aided Iranian mariners in distress on seven occasions since 2012, Stephens said. The Navy's investigation into the incident was continuing, but it appears that the sailors' presence in the waters off of Iran's Farsi Island was accidental and that they were entitled to innocent passage under international law.
"If Iran believed the [riverine command boats] were not in innocent passage in the Iranian territorial sea, the Law of the Sea Convention and Customary International law provide that Iran could have simply directed the vessels to immediately depart Iranian waters," Stephens continued. "Iran could also have engaged diplomatically. It did not have the right under international law to detain and inspect the vessels or to detain the crews."
The strong condemnation of Iran’s actions comes on heels of a growing consensus among legal experts that Iran’s actions broke international law. Furthermore, the use of images has angered leaders in the Defense Department
On Jan. 28, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the videos of sailors held at gunpoint were infuriating.
"I was very, very angry at it," Carter said. "I can tell you, Americans wouldn't have done that. I said that before that for me as secretary of defense — I think it's probably true of everybody in the department — to see our guys in that situation on Iranian TV, that's really not okay."
Their arrests nearly derailed the months of nuclear deal negotiations, with Iran and U.S. officials moving fast to secure the sailors' release from Iran's hard-line paramilitary forces. quickly secured the sailors' release. But only hours after their release, Iran's hardliners released propaganda videos of the sailors in custody.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.