Editor’s Note: Suzanne Maloney is deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow in the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy and Energy Security and Climate Initiative. The views expressed are her own.
Iran detained then released 10 U.S. sailors whose vessels entered Iranian waters
Suzanne Maloney: Sailors' scrape was truly a case where timing was everything
The latest incident between the United States and Iran this week almost immediately generated a torrent of punditry.
There was a backlash from those who see the detention of 10 U.S. sailors who inadvertently strayed into Iran’s territorial waters as confirmation of Tehran’s continuing penchant for troublemaking. But there was applause from others, including the Obama administration, who trumpeted Tehran’s swift release of the sailors as vindication of U.S. diplomacy with Iran and a confirmation of the quiet moderation of its revolutionary regime.
As is always the case with Iran, the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. That the episode did not escalate or extend beyond a day represents a modestly hopeful sign. After all, Iran’s Islamic Republic has practically written the book on defying diplomatic protocol as a means of antagonizing Washington and the West. This pattern began with the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy and its personnel in Tehran and recurred on an unfortunately regular basis through the decades, including the 2004 and 2007 detention of British sailors.
That the Iranian leadership managed to resist the temptation to exploit the waylaid sailors any further than they did reinforces the lesson that was implicit in last summer’s conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear deal: At the highest levels, Iran is seeking a different relationship with the world.
And the rapid resolution of the episode is a testament to the utility of direct bilateral communications, which were ruptured 36 years ago when the hostage crisis began. A generation has passed since ambassadors were exchanged or direct dialogue was routinely held. In the interim, a patchwork system of third-party intermediaries and channels via protecting power has had to suffice.
Today, thanks to the intense, protracted wrangling over the details of the nuclear agreement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on speed dial, and a nascent network of contacts has sprung up at the working levels of both governments. This is as it should be, and as it would have been many years earlier if only the Iranians could have relinquished the revolution’s paranoia surrounding Washington.
There can be no question that the world is better off when old adversaries have fewer impediments to interaction and more reliable mechanisms for managing or even averting crises. However, to credit diplomacy and relationship building as the primary impetus for the timely end to this particular episode is an overstatement, to say the least. The reality is that the single most important factor in shaping Tehran’s response was not the availability of communications channels, but the imminence of sanctions relief.
The sailors’ scrape was truly a case where timing was everything; they went astray only days before the long-anticipated “implementation day” for the nuclear deal, when United Nations certification that Iran has completed its obligations under the agreement will expunge many of the international sanctions that have wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy for the past five years. At that time, Tehran will also reap newfound access to tens of billions of dollars that sanctions stranded in foreign banks.
When that kind of money talks, even the Revolutionary Guard listens. The nuclear deal is an existential concern for Tehran. And despite overheated anxieties about hardliner opposition to the agreement, the agreement commands support at Tehran’s highest levels, at least for the moment. With the payoff within reach, Iran had every incentive to handle the run-in with the U.S. sailors responsibly – tens of billions of incentives. The nuclear deal surely hastened the sailors’ release, but not quite in the fashion that the Obama Administration has been spinning. How the Iranians handle such a predicament after the deal is done and its coffers are replenished remains difficult to anticipate.
So, can a crisis averted can help foster a durable détente between the two countries? At this stage, it’s far too soon to say with any real confidence. Ideally, the successful deployment of diplomacy to free the sailors will bolster trust, encourage more constructive cooperation from Tehran, and sustain some willingness from both sides to use direct dialogue as a means of problem-solving.
But Iranian politics continue to make any real rapprochement complicated and, for the foreseeable future, almost wholly out of reach. Even after the sailors were released, Iranian state television broadcast video footage of their capture and a scripted apology from one of the young American crewmen, amidst triumphal headlines in Iranian newspapers about the humiliation of the Great Satan.
Such chest-thumping is a small price to pay for avoiding another unpleasant standoff. But it is also a reminder that Washington and Tehran still have a long a way to go before cooperation becomes the new normal.