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Sign of warmer relations : Iran releases 10 United States Navy sailors

By Tajuddin
In DIPLOMAT MEMO
Jan 13th, 2016
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An undated photograph released by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on Wednesday showing detained American Navy sailors in an undisclosed location in Iran. Credit Sepahnews, via Associated Press

An undated photograph released by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on Wednesday showing detained American Navy sailors in an undisclosed location in Iran. Credit Sepahnews, via Associated Press

Tehran,Iran ( Agencies + DIPLOMAT.SO)- Iran’s release of 10 United States Navy sailors on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after they were detained on the Persian Gulf, is being hailed in both countries as a sign that their relations have evolved since the signing of the nuclear accord last summer.

Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Iranians “for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter” and suggested that the quick resolution of the issue was a product of the nearly daily back-and-forth that now takes place between Washington and Tehran, after three decades of hostility and stony silence.

“That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong,” he said in a statement Wednesday morning.

The crew members of two patrol boats were detained on Tuesday after what Iranian state news media described as “trespassing” in Iranian waters near a major naval base. Similar episodes in the past, like the seizure of British marines in 2007, have developed into prolonged standoffs that further alienated Tehran and the West.

This time was different. The Pentagon and the State Department said that one of the boats had experienced mechanical problems en route to Bahrain from Kuwait on a routine mission on Tuesday, and that the Iranians appeared to have accepted the explanation.

While the countries still have a long way to go before normalizing relations, analysts say the less charged atmosphere is a reflection of changing priorities in Tehran and Washington.

“The top leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not looking for any tension with America,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a journalist aligned with Iran’s reformists who once served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he added, the “whole system sought tension.”

He continued: “Now, things have changed. Both sides, America and Iran, are in direct contact and they seek détente. Currently there is no need for anti-Americanism.”

The sailors’ release was announced shortly before 10 a.m. on an Iranian state-run news channel, IRINN. “The detained U.S. sailors, after it was realized that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was unintentional, and after the sailors apologized, were released into international waters in the Persian Gulf,” the channel reported, attributing the statement to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The United States Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain confirmed the release, saying in a statement that there were “no indications that the sailors were harmed during their brief detention” and that the Navy would “investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors’ presence in Iran.”

The sailors were being flown to an American military facility in Qatar, where they were to be debriefed and given medical exams, a senior Defense Department official said.

The defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, released a statement commending the “timely way in which this situation was resolved” and thanked Mr. Kerry “for his diplomatic engagement with Iran to secure our sailors’ swift return.”

The quick release of the sailors stands in sharp contrast to the episode eight years ago involving the British marines, which developed into a major international standoff.

In 2007, 15 British marines were arrested by the Revolutionary Guards Navy, which accused them of entering Iranian waters. The sailors were held for 13 days before the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad, then the president, set them free during a televised farewell ceremony in which they were given new suits and carpets as parting gifts.

A prominent conservative Iranian analyst with ties to the senior leadership emphasized that in the current incident, both sides had sought to keep tensions low.

“This time, the Americans were cooperative in proving their innocence, and they quickly accepted their faults without resistance,” the analyst, Hamidreza Taraghi, said in a phone interview. “The sailors apologized for having strayed into Iranian waters.”

Also playing a role was the strong relationship that has developed between Mr. Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during negotiations on the nuclear deal, Mr. Taraghi said.

“John Kerry and Zarif were on the phone during the past hours, and this helped the problem to be resolved quickly due to their direct contact,” he said.

Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said that it was too early to draw “big lessons” from the episode, but that it was clear the rapport Mr. Kerry has developed with Mr. Zarif was crucial to resolving it.

“Secretary Kerry’s aggressive and early engagement in this, and open channel that he had and he has with his foreign minister counterpart is important,” Mr. McDonough said on Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. “I do think that the open lines of communication, which are relatively new, are extraordinarily important.”

The detention and release of the sailors comes at a particularly delicate moment in the American-Iranian relationship, just days before a nuclear deal is to be formally put in place, under which the United States is to unfreeze about $100 billion in Iranian assets.

That step is to be made after international nuclear inspectors verify that Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country, has disabled and removed centrifuges, and has taken a large plutonium reactor permanently offline.

On Wednesday, inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Iran to oversee the decommissioning of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is capable of producing plutonium that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. The removal of the reactor’s core and its replacement with concrete are some of the final steps before the nuclear accord is put in place. The measures are expected to be completed in the next few days, Iranian officials said.

Many American and Middle Eastern officials say they believe that recent actions by the Iranian Navy against American forces in the gulf may be intended to embarrass Mr. Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani. The Revolutionary Guards were responsible for the military side of the nuclear program, and many of its senior officers have objected to the nuclear agreement.

Mr. Rouhani campaigned for office on the promise of getting a nuclear deal and freeing Iran from economic sanctions, and he is said to be anxious to accomplish that before crucial parliamentary elections in February.

Many Republicans in Congress are as committed as Iran’s hard-liners to short-circuiting the nuclear deal. Mr. Obama issued a veto threat on Monday against a House bill that would delay implementation until the president can certify that Iran has reported all of its past work toward designing a nuclear weapon. International inspectors recently declared that Iran had a program “consistent” with weapons work through 2009, but that it had then ceased. Iran has always denied it ever sought a weapon.

While Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani both face opposition from conservatives who want to kill the nuclear deal. But as the current incident suggests, opponents of the deal — in Iran, at least — may be playing a losing hand.

The United States Treasury Department is expected to place some new sanctions on Iran for recent missile tests — which are separate from the nuclear pact — but that effort has been delayed.

Although a crisis was averted in this instance, the potential for trouble lurks everywhere in the crowded skies and waters of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, where the Iran and the United States keep constant watch over each other.

American naval ships patrol Iran’s 1,100-mile southern coastline, while Iranian jets patrol the skies.The Navy’s Fifth Fleet maintains a presence in the Persian Gulf, including the aircraft carrier, and it has had several episodes with Iran recently.

Two weeks ago, the Iranian Navy harassed an American carrier and a French frigate in the Strait of Hormuz, launching rockets that passed within 1,500 yards of the aircraft carrier, the Harry S. Truman. Last year, an Iranian Navy frigate approached a ship in the Gulf of Aden and pointed a heavy machine gun at it for several minutes before turning around, all while an Iranian crew filmed the encounter.

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