By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Meet Iran's new heroes: the head of the naval forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and four of its commanders who last month briefly detained U.S. sailors after their vessels mistakenly strayed into Iranian territorial waters.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on January 31 personally decorated the IRGC officers with the Order of Fath for their "courageous and timely" move to seize the sailors and their boats. The Fath, or "Conquest," medal is one of the Islamic republic's highest honors.
A day later, the five IRGC commanders were guests of honor at the Iranian parliament, where they each received a "certificate of appreciation" and praise from speaker Ali Larijani, who said the IRGC's navy remained the country's "sharp eyes" in safeguarding Iran's maritime borders.
The hero treatment appears to reflect Iranian hard-liners' position that Washington remains Tehran's enemy despite the nuclear accord that Iran reached in July with the United States and other major powers that curbs its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
But it also sends a message to Iranians that, despite the compromises made by Iran in the nuclear deal, their country remains strong and uncompromising.
Alex Vatanka, a senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says the "glorious treatment" the IRGC's navy commanders are receiving is meant to project power at a time when hard-liners are worried that the opening up of the country following the nuclear deal could diminish their power.
"It's about showing who's calling the shots at home in Tehran with [Iranian President Hassan Rohani] being out and about in the world cutting deals," Vatanka said. "But what it, to my mind, shows is how insecure [the hard-line faction of the Iranian establishment] is about their position."
Middle East analyst Rasool Nafisi told RFE/RL that the move is aimed at deflecting attention from the nuclear program to Iran's military might.
"The Iranian [establishment] is trying to make Iranians believe that the Iranian military is No. 1 in the region and can even take on the American military," Nafisi said.
The seizing of the sailors on January 12 and their release several hours later on January 13 came amid improved ties between Iran and the United States, which successfully negotiated the July nuclear deal together with other members of the P5+1 group of world powers -- Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany.
The sailors were swiftly freed following several phone calls between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The quick resolution of the incident was praised by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration as the result of renewed diplomacy between the two countries, which have been at odds since Iran's 1979 revolution and the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.
But hard-liners who are suspicious of the diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries have been touting the incident as a sign of Iran's military might and a humiliation for the United States.
They've released pictures and footage of the U.S. sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads, as well as a televised interview with one the sailors, who is shown "apologizing" for trespassing.
A deputy IRGC commander, General Hossein Salami, claimed on January 16 that the U.S. sailors "cried" when they were being detained but that IRGC forces treated them with "kindness."
Speaking at the Iranian parliament on February 1, an IRGC navy commander, Admiral Ali Fadavi, said Iran has more video footage of the arrest of the U.S. sailors. He added that "if the Americans' acts of malevolence continue, we will release them."
Fadavi also claimed that the IRGC had extracted "extensive information" from the mobile phones and laptops of the U.S. sailors.
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