GOP presidential candidates on Thursday night lambasted photos and video released earlier this week of U.S. sailors being held by the Iranian military after their ships strayed into Iran’s territorial waters.
The two GOP front runners, business mogul Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), focused primarily on the images broadcast by Iranian state-run media that depicted the U.S. sailors on their knees with their hands on on their heads. A number of candidates attacked the Obama administration for its handling of the incident.
Early in the debate, Cruz said he was “horrified to see the sight of 10 American sailors on their knees with their hands on their heads.”
“I give you my word, if I am elected president, no service man or service woman will be forced to be on their knees, and any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America,” said Cruz.
Trump closed out the evening by saying that the images were a “terrible sight” and that the sailors were humiliated with “Iranian wise guys” putting guns to their heads.
Additionally, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accused the “tin pot dictators like the Mullahs in Iran” of taking the small craft.
How did these images emerge?
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after being detained, the vessels and their crew were released. But before the sailors left Iranian custody, the country’s state-run media broadcast a number of images and short clips depicting them in a position of surrender. In one image, the two riverine boats have the U.S. flags removed from their transoms and one even has what appears to be an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps flag flying from its flag pole.
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Iran’s government is not monolithic. The part of the government controlled by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is reformist-minded and seeks more engagement with the West to help jump-start its economy. But hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guard, Iraq’s most powerful security and military organization, are fearful of opening the country to foreign influence. It’s a particularly sensitive time for U.S.-Iran relations, with the implementation of a landmark nuclear deal imminent.
Another clip, which has also drawn a slew of criticism, shows a sailor apologizing for entering Iran’s waters. Iranian state-run media is known for releasing images that might appear to give Iran a leg up on their adversaries. In 2011, a U.S. RQ-170 drone crashed in northern Iran. Soon after, it was displayed in Iranian media.
While Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter was hesitant to call the images propaganda, their circulation prior to the sailors’ release had many calling the various pictures and footage a boon for the Iranians–something the GOP presidential candidates seized on during Thursday’s debate.
“What you’re looking through [is the] lens of the Iranian media,” Carter said. “So I think we need to give these guys the opportunity to tells us what was really going on and what the overall context is before we can really know.”
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton also commented on the incident Thursday night on the Rachel Maddow Show.
“Let’s recognize it and let’s move on,” said Clinton. “‘Don’t try to turn it into a political propaganda coup because it isn’t and it shouldn’t be. It raises the kind of challenges that we’ll have with Iran going forward.”
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.