The nuke deal facilitated the US sailors’ release

The recent news of two U.S. naval vessels and 10 sailors being held by Iran sparked outrage and furor among many in Washington despite the Administrations assurances and explanation that it was “not a hostile action by Iran.” Many presidential hopefuls, lawmakers and pundits claimed that the sailors were “abducted on the high seas” and denounced it as emblematic of Iranian “aggression” and “provocative behavior.” Many demanded U.S. withdrawal from the recently agreed-to nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and even recommended that military action be considered and threatened. Central to their message was that the nuclear deal showed American weakness and has emboldened Iran, perhaps leading to this particular event. Some news outlets also reported this story in the context of a “series of provocations” by Iran, referencing previous flash points between Iran and the US. 

Despite the frenzied reactions, it became clear that the American vessels were not intercepted or forcefully taken. They drifted into Iranian territorial waters for reasons the Pentagon has yet to explain and ran aground off the coast of Iran’s Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. Secretary of State John Kerry contacted Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iran accepted the U.S. explanation about how its military vessels found themselves in that condition. Iran communicated to Washington that its sailors are safe, well treated and will be returned promptly, a promise that was kept the next morning when it became safe to do so.

{mosads}Upon their release, the Pentagon stated that there was no sign the sailors were mistreated. Though some of the details are still unclear, it’s neither surprising nor illogical that they were provisionally detained during their brief encounter with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. One factor is that the island is a highly restricted naval garrison, but one also has to understand what the Persian Gulf has been and what it has become. 

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain predates the Islamic Revolution but its mission has since largely focused on projecting U.S. power in the Persian Gulf specifically to provide a check on Iran and its influence in the region. 

During the Iran-Iraq war the U.S. responded to Iranian sea mining that damaged a U.S. Naval vessel by launching operation “Praying Mantis” that inflicted severe damage on Iran’s navy. It was stated that the mining was a reciprocation of Iraqi targeting of Iranian tanker and intended to deny petro-capital to Saddam Hussein and his Arab allies who financed Iraq’s invasion of Iran. Later, a U.S. guided missile cruiser shot down Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf killing 290 and claimed that it mistook the sizable civilian plane for a F-14 fighter jet. 

It is also important to consider the Farsi Island incident in the larger context of the very robust U.S. military presence in Iran’s immediate surroundings. The U.S. has invaded two of Iran’s neighbors and uses its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to stage operations against Iran. The U.S. also maintains a military presence in other Iranian neighbors such as Turkmenistan and Turkey, in addition to most Arab states in the lower Persian Gulf. Iran has also been a key point of focus for U.S. intelligence espionage and cyber operations. 

Iran has always tended to view this robust presence itself as a provocation and a menace. It considers America’s muscular naval posture as being designed to control the Persian Gulf and in doing so compromise Iranian interests, support its regional rivals and deny its navy the ability to operate freely even in its own sovereign waters. In fact, naval deployments and exercises in the Persian Gulf have been used by great powers as a tool of intimidation and coercion against Iran for generations. Imperial Britain used this tactic as part of its successful campaign to extract a 60-year oil concessions from then Iranian monarch Reza Shah. 

The U.S. and other Western nations have also sold and are planning to sell tens of billions of dollars of naval assets to the Arab countries along the Persian Gulf who are aligned with the U.S. and increasingly hostile to Iran. 

Because of this increasing militarization, the Persian Gulf has become a volatile environment where powerful navies with combative postures tensely stare each other down across a narrow expanse. History is riddled with unintended wars between politically hostile nations sparked by a mistake or a minor military flashpoint. In that context, the relative ease and pace with which the issue regarding the sailors was resolved is actually a positive sign for the leveling of tensions between Iran and the US and greater civility in the region. 

The role of the nuclear deal in fostering this progress must not be understated. The channels between Iran and the U.S., and the personal relationship between Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif, that were primarily instrumental for this amicable resolution did not exist before the nuclear talks. Additionally, the U.S. military explanation would have no doubt been viewed with far greater suspicion a few years ago and political pressure by security hawks in Tehran to react more guardedly could have influenced the matter negatively. Consequently, Iran’s releasing of the sailors and their military vessels without a more extensive investigation by Iran’s military officials would have been unlikely.

Alireza Ahmadi New York based writer and analyst focused on US policy towards Iran and Middle East geopolitics.

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