- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By David Crist
Best Defense guest columnist
The importance of last week’s event in the Persian Gulf goes beyond current political sound bites. It speaks to the complex relationship between the two nations where engagement and confrontation co-exist. It shows the importance for the United States of having diplomatic relations with a still hostile Iranian regime. It also serves as an important reminder that in the Middle East, perception can be as important as reality.
If this incident had occurred three or four years ago, it could not have been resolved in twenty-four hours. The lack of direct diplomatic relations would have hampered de-escalation of the fast moving crisis. Previously, the only means for United States to directly contact the Iranian leadership was through the Swiss government or via less reliable third parties such as Oman or Iraq. These channels are slow, and Washington can never be certain that its message is accurately relayed to Tehran. Reflecting on this challenge in 2011, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen noted: “We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be miscalculation.”
Secretary of State John Kerry correctly attributed the quick resolution to the Riverine boat incident as a result of prolonged diplomatic interaction that occurred during the nuclear negotiations. This has been the most extensive discussions between the two governments since 1979. Over countless conversations, Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif developed rapport and trust, which helped to reduce mutual suspicion between Iran and the United States. Last week, Kerry spoke to his Iranian counterpart ten minutes after learning of the boats’ seizure. In the past, the American secretary would have struggled to even find the correct phone number; in 1990, President George H.W. Bush spoke for a half-an-hour with someone he thought was the Iranian president—it turned out to be an imposter.
For all that, Iran based its decision to release the American service personnel on pragmatism and not on altruism. Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program due to changing security calculations. International sanctions had increased popular discontent and economic stagnation. This led to a national sense of isolation. Additionally, Iran sees a growing proxy war with Saudi Arabia and “associated” Sunni radicals like the Islamic State. In this regional conflict, a nuclear weapon offers little security compared with the advantages of increased financial resources provided by sanctions relief. Economic growth and increased oil exports would allow Iran to contend with the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia in what Tehran sees as a long war for dominance of the Middle East. Holding the Americas would have only undermined these goals by risking badly needed sanctions relief within days of the nuclear agreement’s formal implementation.
Despite improved relations, the potential for conflict with Iran remains significant. Foreign Minister Zarif does not control the actions of the Revolutionary Guard, whom has a long history of disregarding the wishes of the foreign ministry. The Guard remains deeply suspicious of American intentions. They view themselves as the defender of the revolution and chaff at the existence of the American 5th Fleet and its large naval force in the Gulf. No doubt hardliners within the Iranian government advocated holding the Americans longer to extract a greater humiliation on the Americans.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard frequently conducts mock attacks against U.S. warships. The recent firing of rockets near the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman was just the latest such provocation. In 2008, for example, the U.S.S. Hopper nearly opened fire on Revolutionary Guard boats after they dropped what looked to be mines directly in front of the American warship. To prevent such an incident from escalating, in 2012, the United States proposed establishing a hotline between the two naval forces. Unfortunately, Iran rejected the idea.
But the images of disheveled American sailors captured by the Revolutionary Guard served Iran’s goals far more than holding them ever could. It marked a propaganda coup for Iran, a victory for the Revolutionary Guard over “global arrogance.” The stark appearance of uniformed Americans surrendering and Iranian soldiers pawing through the captured boats provided a powerful visual of Iranian strength. It showed Iran’s capability to overpower the armed forces of the most powerful nation on earth. It gave the Guard a venue to show their compassion against a helpless opponent.
The deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, drove home these themes in an interview with Iran’s Fars News Agency. “The marines [actually sailors] were crying when they were being captured, but they later felt better after the IRGC forces treated them with kindness.” Salami added, “The Americans humbly admitted our might and power.”
In a region where the projection of strength is a key to deterrence, this incident only reinforced the narrative of increasing Iranian strength and decreasing American commitment. It could not have reassured Washington’s Arab partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council about America’s prowess or wiliness to challenge Iran. For the United States, the seizure of the two boats was a debacle.
Despite these consequences, the quick resolution showed the importance of talking to one’s adversary. Diplomacy should not be seen as a reward for bad behavior as the previous administration frequently did. President Barack Obama’s persistent effort to improve relations with Iran has been aimed not for the short-term crises, but at long-term security goals. The hope is that an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program could begin to thaw a relationship frozen for three decades, and over the course of time, lead to a broader rapprochement. Defusing the Riverine boat crisis and the just announced swap in prisoners validate this strategy.
But ending 35 years of American-Iranian enmity will take more than the signing of a nuclear agreement. The 1979 Iranian revolution enshrined anti-Americanism as a key pillar of Iranian foreign policy. The young men who shouted death to the Shah and overthrew an unpopular U.S.-supported dictator may have gray in their beards, but many of their attitudes remain unchanged. Overcoming this historical baggage will not be achieved quickly; improved relations will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. But maintaining a dialogue between the two antagonists will help ensure that we can rapidly de-escalate the frequently tense interactions between the two military forces in the Persian Gulf.
Dr. David Crist is a senior historian and Middle East expert for the Department of Defense. He is author of the award-winning book on U.S.-Iranian relations, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Image taken by those released by Iran’s Islamic republic state television