Republicans’ Self-Defeating Attack on Obama’s Iran Policy

by Eli Clifton

Yesterday, Iran swiftly released U.S. navy sailors it had detained on Tuesday after their two patrol boats entered Iranian territorial waters near a major Iranian naval base. The U.S. media reported that the release signaled that relations between the U.S. and Iran had dramatically improved during the nuclear negotiations between the Obama administration and Iranian diplomats. Indeed, the resolution of the recent incident contrasted sharply with Iran’s 2007 detention of 15 British Royal Navy sailors for 13 days and the intense negotiations undertaken to broker their release. The relationship forged between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has clearly paid off.

But Republican presidential hopefuls didn’t celebrate the quick release of the U.S. military personnel who found themselves in Iranian waters near a sensitive military site. Rather, they portrayed it as a failed opportunity to escalate tensions with Iran, tear up the nuclear deal, and, in the process, potentially put the safety of U.S. military personnel in jeopardy.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning, after the sailors had been released, that the U.S. should renege on the nuclear agreement and refuse to unfreeze Iranian funds:

Trump apparently hadn’t been informed that the White House had already secured the sailors’ release—without destroying the agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program or setting back years of careful diplomacy.

Late last night, Trump, apparently unsatisfied by the quick release of the sailors, tweeted:

More Than Just Trump

Trump wasn’t the only GOP presidential hopeful desperately trying to paint the incident as a failure rather than a dividend from years of negotiations between the State Department and Iranian diplomats. “This is the latest manifestation of the weakness of Barack Obama,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told WRKO Radio. “Every bad actor… views Obama as a laughingstock.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told an audience in South Carolina yesterday that if elected president he would cancel the nuclear deal, tearing up the very agreement that may have given Iran’s moderates a strong incentive to return the sailors quickly. Rubio said:

By the way, I don’t know if you saw these images, they’re really horrifying and they made me really angry this morning. American sailors, on their knees, hands behind their head. A female sailor, forced to wear a headscarf, penned up in a jail cell. You know why these things happen? Because they know they can get away with it with Barack Obama in office. They know they can humiliate us. . . . That is why on my first day in office, in that Oval Office, I am going to cancel this ridiculous deal he has struck with Iran.

Rubio has consistently opposed the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. One of his chief fundraisers, billionaire Paul Singer, bankrolled many of the politicians and groups opposing the nuclear deal. The Florida senator is reportedly chasing the endorsement of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who urged a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran. The financing of Rubio’s political future may offer little room for him to take any position other than doubling down on reneging on the nuclear agreement with Iran, even if doing so would decrease the likelihood for future incidents in the Persian Gulf to end as quickly or peacefully.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted on Tuesday evening:

Since the sailors were shortly released, Bush’s harsh comments are particularly hollow. There’s been no mention of “bargaining,” and Obama’s “weak Iran policy” appears to have produced the outcome that Bush was demanding. Perhaps Bush’s tweet could be taken as a de facto endorsement of the White House’s handling of relations with Iran?

A Reach for Republicans

In an attempt to flip the script following the release of the sailors, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) told Fox Business Network that the incident was actually an example of Iran’s contempt for Obama. He said:

But, listen, this is a display of — by the Iranians of how little they respect this president and how weak this president truly is, that on the day of his State of the Union address, they would take this kind of provocative action and jail American service men and women is outrageous. And this is why the American people are so nervous, why they are scared and anxiety-ridden over our place in the world and what it means for our own safety and the safety of their fellow citizens. This president has just failed us.

Indeed, all of the Republican presidential frontrunners jumped at the opportunity to turn the incident into an indictment of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy. But none of them offered an alternative strategy that could produce an outcome more optimal than the quick release of the sailors negotiated by John Kerry.

Tonight’s GOP debate will, no doubt, give the candidates another opportunity to denounce the Obama administration’s handling of the incursion of U.S. naval personnel into Iranian territory and their brief detention.

The Republican presidential field’s increasingly desperate effort to attack the nuclear agreement is a kneejerk rejection of any policies or actions undertaken by the Obama White House, even when the administration’s actions helped secure the freedom and safety of U.S. Navy personnel. But it also points to a much deeper problem for the Republican Party: the lack of a cohesive foreign policy strategy that could serve as an alternative to the Obama administration’s global approach.

Photo of Donald Trump courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.