POLITICS

Iran's Quick Release Of The American Sailors Is Diplomacy At Work

But hawks are telling a different story.

WASHINGTON -- If Iranian officials holding 10 U.S. Navy sailors on Farsi Island this week was the the first test of U.S.-Iran relations in a post-nuclear deal environment, the outcome was vindicating for proponents of diplomacy between the two countries.

But you wouldn’t know it from listening to conservative hawks.

After Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained the sailors accused of crossing into Iranian waters on Tuesday night, nuclear deal critics crowed that the altercation was a huge embarrassment for President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to deliver his final State of the Union address hours later.

“Obama’s humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again,” tweeted presidential candidate Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.). Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) suggested the president may need to delay his speech in order to address Iran’s “pattern of aggravating action.” The event proceeded as scheduled, and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) criticized Obama for failing to mention the Farsi Island incident. Notorious Iran fearmonger Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called on the president to rip up the nuclear deal if the American sailors were not returned “immediately.”

The nuclear accord has so far been successful in compelling Iran to scale back its nuclear program, which was the Obama administration’s stated sole reason for entering the negotiations. Iran is currently ahead of schedule in dismantling key components of its nuclear program, as required by the July 14 agreement signed by Iran, the U.S. and five world powers. The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to inspect Iran’s revamped and downsized nuclear infrastructure as early as this weekend. If it verifies that Iran is complying with the agreement, that will trigger widespread international sanctions relief. 

It’s not entirely fair to use this week's incident to measure the success of the nuclear accord, which was never intended to resolve other issues between the U.S. and Iran -- of which there are many. However, even those who defended the Obama administration’s reasoning for keeping the nuclear deal separate from other issues hoped that increased diplomacy between the two nations would translate into greater cooperation on non-nuclear matters.

And it appears it has.

By Tuesday night, Reuters reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had assured U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the sailors would be returned promptly. Despite a lack of formal diplomatic relations, the two men had developed a functioning working relationship during months of intense negotiations over the nuclear agreement.

At 6:59 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed the American Navy sailors were back in U.S. hands -- approximately three hours before administration officials had projected they would be. The Americans were released “after it was realized that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was unintentional,” Iranian state-run news channel IRINN announced.

The 10 U.S. sailors who were detained in Iran were released, unharmed, after less than 24 hours in captivity. 
The 10 U.S. sailors who were detained in Iran were released, unharmed, after less than 24 hours in captivity. 

Kerry, a former Navy sailor, thanked the Iranian government for its swift cooperation, and pointed to the painless resolution as the benefit of the gradually improving relations between U.S. and Iran.

“That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plans in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong,” he said in a statement.

Zarif echoed that sentiment, tweeting, “Happy to see dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors episode. Let’s learn from this latest example.”

Even though the American sailors and their boats were released unharmed after less than 24 hours in Iranian custody, steadfast Iran hawks remained convinced that the incident proved stable U.S.-Iran relations were possible.

Cotton, who on Tuesday said the U.S. should exit the nuclear deal if the sailors weren’t returned immediately, challenged U.S. officials' assertions that the 10 Navy sailors ended up in disputed territory as a result of mechanical malfunctions. During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday, the senator said he found it hard to believe that the IRGC wasn’t involved in “plotting this in advance, all designed to humiliate the president, therefore the United States, just days before we’re about to release billions and billions of dollars in sanctions relief to Iran.”  

Bloomberg View columnists Josh Rogin and Eli Lake wrote that even if Iran were to release the sailors quickly, “the incident is a significant escalation in the Persian Gulf. It shows that despite a nuclear agreement with the West, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is willing to board U.S. vessels, take American soldiers into custody, and, according to CNN citing U.S. officials, confiscate the crew's communications and GPS equipment.”

The problem with this logic is that the IRGC was also willing to detain U.S. soldiers before the nuclear deal -- and this incident, unlike previous ones, was resolved rapidly and peacefully.

Compare these events to 2004, when six British Marines and two naval personnel who were part of a U.S.-led force in Iraq were seized by Iranian officials for allegedly crossing into Iranian waters. The British military personnel were freed three days later, but the Iranians confiscated their equipment, and put one of their rigid inflatable boats on display in a Tehran museum. Former Marine Scott Fallon, one of the detainees, recalled being handcuffed, blindfolded and subjected to a mock execution. The detainees were forced to apologize on Iranian television before they were released.

In 2007, Iranian forces seized 15 British military personnel in disputed waters between Iraq and Iran. The captives were treated considerably better than the 2004 group, but it still took 13 days to resolve the dispute.