On the eve of President Barack Obama’s verbose, long, and overtly rhetorical last annual State of the Union address, which can in my opinion, in right concentration technically be weaponised as it was so boring and devoid of policy that it can kill, Iran did an interesting thing, captured ten US sailors in gunpoint. The details are sketchy, but here it goes. Two riverine fast water craft of the US navy, allegedly broke down, and entered Iranian waters. Iran intercepted them, and arrested the sailors, and brought them to Iranian shores for questioning. Ten sailors, including one woman were then kept in confinement, and then within 24 hours, they were released after a thorough questioning. At no point was anyone ill-treated, or tortured or threatened. In two more days five other Americans including a Washington Post journalist were also released.
The hardliners in both the countries are not happy, especially in US. Given the fact that this is election season is not helping either. Apparently the US is weak, and the Obama administration has given up on strength to control deviant powers and Iran, emboldened by the new nuclear deal is pushing the limits of American resolve. This will only get worse, and other powers would also push US as the perception of America is now a weak country. To sum it up, in short, it is all the fault of the nuclear deal. That’s the ongoing narrative. That’s also very wrong.
Let’s assume the scenario, but in a different light. Here are my questions to the hawkish policy makers and hardliners. What was to be done otherwise?
Imagine a situation when two armed naval boats cross American territorial waters, and the US navy surrounds them, without any plausible explanation, or without any explanation which could be corroborated. Unlike some US allies, who shot down a Russian plane when it was going out of its airspace (Turkey…), it is reasonable to assume, the boats will be surrounded, and taken into custody, and then let off after an interrogation with regards to their intentions. Any great power would do that. One cannot just presume, two armed boats crossing into an adversarial power’s territorial waters, especially when the zone is extremely volatile with multiple wars going on, on all the fronts. It would be prudent to keep in mind, that even a year back, when relations with Iran was even worse, during a time of tension, Iran confiscated a Royal navy boat for a week, before the sailors were let off. No such thing this time, everything was done within a lightening fast time of 24 hours!
The second thing here is Iran showed photos of American sailors with their hands over their head, when the boat was surrounded. Granted Iranian media shouldn’t have displayed those photos, and it was done with a game of oneupmanship in mind. But one needs to keep in mind, that first of all, it is standard operating procedure to take pictures during arrests given these volatile times, so that there is no controversy later on and no accusations of ill treatment.
Secondly, it was targeted towards domestic and regional consumption as a show to other powers, most notably Saudi Arabia, and a display of Iranian resolve, rather than a humiliation of American power. Iran and Saudi Arabia is essentially at war, from Syria to Yemen. It is understandable that Iran would take this opportunity to show that they are ready at arms, for any misadventure from any other powers with adversarial intentions.
Which brings us to the greater question of the nuclear deal. What were people expecting when the deal was signed and what was the intention and alternatives? It is already established that Iranian nuclear deal to stop Iran from enriching was the best way, short of war and occupation, as even a bombing campaign won’t stop Iran from enriching Uranium, it will only help Iran take the program underground and alienate an adversary to an outright enemy. Recent reports suggest Iran is upholding its side of the deal. Any cooperation with Iran which is happening now, with regards to ISIS would then stop, and Iran would do its most to destabilize the region and make the lives of US forces miserable. It is not prudent to antagonize regional powers, who control or has stake over vital waterways, like the Strait of Hormuz, unless there’s an outright war.
But there’s a more important question, which people neglect. This deal is entirely in accordance with the Realists within the US administration. It is not just a deal, it is a US middle eastern rebalancing. The US administration and other policy makers, rightly recognised, that Iran with its thousand years of civilizational history, and its comparatively liberal citizenry where women can drive and socialize with men, is a much better choice of alignment, if not an outright alliance in the future, than say Saudi Arabia with its medieval society and terror export. Iranian rivalry is essentially geo-political with regional rivals like Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and Iranian backed Shiite militias and Hezbollah are dangerous but not apocalyptic like ISIS and other Sunni Jihadi groups. Moreover, this is the biggest chance of US getting out of Middle eastern quagmire, as Iran and Russia takes over the burden.
So everyone, and especially the hawks, needs to calm down. The Iran deal is working.