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The Underlying Messages of the US-Iran Naval Incident

By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)

U.S. sailors detained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards on January 13, 2016.
(photo by Islamic Republic News Agency)

When news broke that the naval branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had captured 10 US naval personnel whose boat had drifted into the territorial waters of the Iranian island of Farsi, it first appeared that Iran's hardliners were attempting to scuttle the implementation of the recently concluded nuclear deal and thus prevent any further improvement in US-Iran relations. However, the Iranian authorities soon released the captured sailors. The commander of the IRGC's naval branch declared that the Iranian authorities had ascertained that the US personnel had entered Iranian waters by mistake and had no ill intent. Meanwhile, the US government also reacted to the news of the capture of its naval personnel calmly, without interpreting it as another sign of Iran's mischief-making or proof of the belligerence and irrationality of the IRGC. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry contacted his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, and the two used diplomacy to resolve the conflict quickly.

The swift release of American naval personnel and the calm and mature way both governments behaved contrasted sharply with with a similar incident that occurred in 2007 during which 15 British naval personnel, whose boat had drifted into Iran's territorial waters in the Arvand Rud (Shatt al-Arab), were held for 13 days. At that time, the detainees were released only after much posturing by both sides.

So, what does the incident and the way it was handled reveal about Iran's internal politics as well as the current administration's approach towards Iran?

One explanation for the IRGC's action is that the IRGC feels that the more conciliatory policies of the Rouhani administration have decreased its power. Therefore, it wanted to show the importance of its role in defending Iran's sovereignty at sea and thus protecting its security. The IRGC leaders in their statements certainly emphasized this point. By so doing they also hoped to remind everyone that they cannot be ignored by civilian leaders.

However, both the tone and the behavior of the IRGC was quite mild, at least according to the institution's usual standards. It insisted on treating the US personnel with respect and housing them in a comfortable and safe place. Such behavior shows that the IRGC is not foolish enough to court a potential US military response to the capture and abuse of its personnel. Although rhetorically belligerent, the IRGC is not irrational and foolhardy in its actions. Moreover, the treatment of the sailors shows that Iran's current priorities are the successful and timely implementation of the nuclear deal and the pursuit of a more conciliatory foreign policy across the board. This foreign policy has become necessary partly, but not entirely, because of Iran's economic and financial needs and the lack of any appetite among the Iranian public for conflict in general but especially with a power such as the United States.

Under these circumstances, the IRGC cannot afford to be seen as standing in the way of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the dashing of any hopes for a better economic future for the country. Even the IRGC needs some measure of public favor to be able to retain its dominant economic and political position in the country. This episode also shows that, at the moment, the Supreme Leader is also committed to ensure the implementation of the JPCOA and the revival of the Iranian economy. He, too, is aware that Iran's economic and other problems risk undermining the Islamic system and further eroding its support base, and thus he wants to find solutions to these problems.

The successfully negotiated resolution of the incident also shows the determination of the Obama administration to make a success of the Iran nuclear deal-despite continuing opposition by hardline American circles and politicians-and to use it to improve bilateral relations. As also noted by other commentators, it demonstrates the importance of establishing channels of diplomatic communication even in the absence of formal relations. It is also proof of the benefits of engaging with Iran. Without the efforts of President Obama, Secretary Kerry, President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif, which led to the JPCOA, the countries would not have had the incentive to deescalate and resolve emerging crises. Nor would have they established the personal relationships, such as that between Zarif and Kerry, that clearly helped in the timely resolution of the case of the captured sailors.

But the main lesson of this episode in US-Iran relations is that the two countries can work together effectively and a civil manner when they have mutual interests and the proper channels of communications. Now it is incumbent on both countries to extend this civility and rational behavior to other aspects of their dealings together, whether direct or indirect, and build on it to forge more constructive relations in the future.

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About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).


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