UPDATE: Iran released all 10 sailors Wednesday morning without further incident. The Iranian government issued the following statement: “We have concluded that passage of Americans in our territorial waters was not a hostile passage or for espionage or similar acts.”
WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Just hours before his final State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama faced an unexpected, and certainly unwelcome, co-star: Iran.
On Tuesday afternoon, Iranian ships detained two U.S. Navy vessels, along with the 10 crew members onboard, after mechanical failures sent them drifting into foreign waters.
The high-profile incursion presented yet another challenge for Mr. Obama, who struck a controversial deal this summer to forestall the country’s nuclear proliferation — a deal Republican critics continue to describe as irresponsible and unenforceable.
Iran has repeatedly violated elements of the agreement without facing sufficient consequences, say bipartisan members of Congress.
But the White House chose to focus on progress, rather than setbacks, Tuesday night.
Rushing into the House chamber before the address, Secretary of State John Kerry predicted the sailors would be released “very soon.”
“No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin,” declared Mr. Obama, sticking to his prepared speech. He did not mention the sailors directly.
That didn’t sit well with Republicans — and some Democrats.
Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) bashed the Iran nuclear agreement during her official Republican rebuttal, which aired after the president’s speech.
Republicans “would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around,” promised Gov. Haley.
GOP members of Congress also seized the moment to further express their deep concerns.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dubbed the lack of a mention of the sailors “appalling.” In a second tweet, Kinzinger scolded Obama’s muscle-flexing message, saying, “Where are our sailors? Iran is not an ally.”
The president and new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) were civil, even friendly at times, on Tuesday night. But when all was said and done, Ryan issued a statement lamenting, “Iran’s brutal regime, more emboldened than ever, continues to act with impunity without consequence from this administration.”
President Obama wasn’t expecting Republicans to roar with approval following his final SOTU address, but his decision to omit an explicit mention of the 10 sailors drew added scorn.
In the days ahead, members of Congress are vowing to push for stronger sanctions and tighter congressional oversight, which they complain has been woefully weak.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales