U.S. legal experts now believe that Iran’s arrest of 10 Navy sailors, though it ended peacefully, was a clear violation of international law that has gone unchallenged.
According to these experts, quick passage through Iranian territorial waters is no legal cause for Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps seizure of the two vessels and detainment of the 10 sailors, Navy Times reports.
While the situation ended without jeopardizing the Iranian nuclear deal, it did result in major embarrassment for the U.S., especially because Iran paraded numerous photos and videos of U.S. sailors on their knees at gunpoint.
If that weren’t enough, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei poured salt into the wound by referring to the capture as “God’s deed.”
In an effort not to upset progress made by the Iranian nuclear deal, Secretary of State John Kerry enthusiastically thanked the Iranians for an expeditious return of the sailors and did not even publicly hint at the possibility that the arrests, performed on the same day as President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, constituted a violation of international law. Iran released the sailors after holding them for 16 hours.
“This should be very concerning for the Navy community,” James Kraska, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College, told Navy Times. “This says that U.S. vessels don’t have innocent passage and that their sovereign immunity is not respected.”
Kraska cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although the U.S. has not ratified the agreement, it does abide by it. Iran hasn’t ratified the document either, but it has signed it. According to Kraska, UNCLOS would have allowed the IRGC to query the vessels and even expel them, but arrest was far beyond the pale.
A potential response to this argument could be that the vessels did not move through Iranian waters continuously and expeditiously because they suffered navigational failure, but even in that case, UNCLOS allows vessels in trouble the right to stop.
“Iran’s interpretation of the innocent passage doctrine finds little support under the text of UNCLOS and it has been squarely rejected by most major seafaring nations, including both the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union,” Julian Ku, a law professor, wrote on the blog Lawfare. “Indeed, such a restrictive reading of innocent passage effectively undermines the whole purpose of the doctrine.”
The outcome of this incident may jeopardize U.S. operations in the South China Sea, especially since China has continued to develop its artificial islands in the region and vociferously complained about the U.S. Navy conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the area to keep a check on China’s expansive claims of sovereignty.
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