McCain says he’ll hold a hearing, subpoena US sailors detained by Iran if necessary

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( – Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), angered by Iran’s treatment of 10 U.S. Navy sailors detained overnight in the Persian Gulf last month – and by the administration’s handling of the incident – is now threatening to subpoena the sailors if necessary to establish exactly what happened.

In the weeks following the incident, which U.S. Central Command said occurred after two patrol boats inadvertently entered Iran’s territorial waters, Iranian state media repeatedly used images of the sailors’ detention at gunpoint in a bid todenigrate the U.S.

A U.S. Navy investigation is underway, but McCain said at the weekend it seemed administration members were “dragging their feet” in completing the probe.

Reuters quoted McCain as telling reporters, while traveling back to the U.S. from the Munich Security Conference, that if the administration did not provide the investigation’s findings by March 1, he would hold a hearing and subpoena the sailors – an option he said he would rather not exercise.

“I guarantee you, if they don’t have a debrief by the first of March like they said, we’ll have a hearing and we’ll subpoena,” he said. “We’re not going to wait any longer. We will subpoena the individuals if we have to.”

McCain said he raised the issue with Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the Munich conference, which both attended.

The incident occurred just days before the critical “implementation day” of the Iran nuclear deal, which the administration characterizes as a major triumph of diplomacy.

On January 12 the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy detained the 10 sailors and their patrol vessels for about 14 hours, releasing them the following day after Kerry took up the matter with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

A still from video footage released on Iran state media shows U.S. sailors kneeling, hands behind their heads, after being apprehended by the IRGC Navy in the Persian Gulf. (Image: Al-Alam TV)
Iranian media broadcast imagery of the Americans kneeling on deck at gunpoint, hands clasped behind their heads. Footage also showed one of the sailors apologizing for entering Iran’s territorial waters, and a female sailor with her hair covered by a scarf. A clip released later showed another sailor,apparently in tears.

Iranian state media reported at the time that the IRGC Navy had released the sailors “after Americans apologized,” although the reports left unclear whether that purported apology referred to the sailor who was filmed acknowledging their mistake, or an apology from U.S. officials. Vice-President Joe Biden told CBS News on the day of the incident that no apology had been given.

McCain was furious when Kerry thanked Iran for releasing the sailors.

“While they’re humiliating American sailors and broadcasting it throughout the Middle East, our secretary of state is thanking them – is thanking them for releasing them the next day,” McCain said at a subsequent press conference in Washington with several other GOP senators.

He said Iran’s actions amounted to a “gross violation of all international law.”

“Our servicemen and women deserve better than this kind of leadership, that does nothing in response to forcing them to kneel under the weapon of some two-bit Iranian revolutionary guard.”

After thanking Iran on January 13 for ensuring a swift resolution of the incident, and calling the outcome “a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong,” Kerry five days later told reporters – in response to questions about his reaction to the images of the sailors – that they left him angry and frustrated.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also declared himself “very, very angry.”

“This is not the way they should have been treated, and it’s very – for certain not the way Americans would have treated foreign sailors in a comparable circumstance,” he said at a Pentagon press briefing on January 28.

— Written by Patrick Goodenough