MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Iran is taking center stage in the 2016 Republican presidential race.
While the Iran nuclear deal has long been a major punching bag for GOP contenders on the stump, recent events have thrust the Iranian threat even more into the forefront of the 2016 campaign.
On Tuesday, Iran captured 10 U.S. Navy sailors, and though they were quickly released, images soon emerged in Iranian state media of the Americans being unnecessarily humiliated by the Iranian military. On Saturday, the Obama administration announced that four dual American-Iranian citizens long imprisoned by Iran would finally return to the U.S. in a prisoner swap.
While the Obama administration is portraying both stories as examples of triumphs of American diplomacy, Republican presidential contenders do not see them quite the same way. For Republicans, Iran resonates as an issue because it seems to epitomize everything the GOP believes is wrong with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, from its naiveté, to its incompetence, to its weakness.
At the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention here Saturday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz earned his most vociferous applause from the crowd when ravaging Iran and its humiliation of the American sailors it captured last week.
“We saw this week just how profoundly dangerous it is, after Iran captures our ship, after they attempt to humiliate our sailors, what does Barack Obama do? Turns around and wants to give the Ayatollah Khamenei $100 billion,” Cruz declared.
“I’ll tell you this: If I’m elected president, our sailors will never be alone,” he added to loud and sustained applause.
The announcement that the four long-detained Americans were finally being released occurred just hours before Cruz delivered his speech. While Cruz said he was happy the four Americans were finally coming home, he expressed consternation over the circumstances of their release, calling the prisoner swap a “false moral equivalency.”
“While we celebrate their return, this deal servers as a piece of propaganda for both Iran and the Obama administration,” he said.
Speaking at the same event a couple hours later, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump also hammered the recently announced prisoner swap, while simultaneously claiming partial credit for the release of the Americans.
“We give them essentially 22 people – 21, 22 people. These are people who really did have problems. And we are getting back four people that didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
“That’s the way we negotiate,” he lamented. “That’s the way we negotiate. It’s so sad. It’s so sad.”
Elsewhere, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio claimed the prisoner swap would only put more Americans in danger.
“Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Of all the GOP contenders, only Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke positively about the Obama administration’s dealings with Iran.
“It was done, I think, because even though Iran is a country with very limited freedom, we were willing to negotiate,” Paul said of the prisoner swap while campaigning in New Hampshire Saturday. “It goes to temperament. All the other Republicans are telling you — rip up that agreement. I say, ‘Really? Don’t we want to see if it works first?’”
As he often is on national security matters, Paul was by far the exception among his Republican compatriots. Most GOP presidential contenders appear to believe the issue of Iran, and especially its humiliation of American troops in possible violation of the Geneva Convention, is a potent one among GOP voters.
That’s why at Thursday’s GOP debate, despite being asked about an economic issue as the very first question, Cruz immediately turned to Iran’s capture of the American sailors. Trump centered his closing statement at the debate around the incident.
“I stood yesterday with 75 construction workers. They’re tough, they’re strong, they’re great people. Half of them had tears pouring down their face,” he said. “They were watching the humiliation of our young ten sailors, sitting on the floor with their knees in a begging position, their hands up, Iranian wise guys having guns to their heads. It was a terrible sight – a terrible sight.”
Cruz even predicted Saturday at the tea party convention that the image of the 10 captured American sailors would define President Obama’s failed foreign policy legacy.
“And I will tell you that image, 10 brave sailors forced to their knees — that image will summarize the failures of the Obama administration foreign policy more powerfully than any image from the last seven years,” Cruz said.