Diplomatic Sanity Prevails with Iran

Before President Obama’s State of the Union Address, U.S. cable news blasted out bulletins about Iran seizing American sailors, as Obama’s critics blasted him. But the U.S. intrusion into Iranian waters was quickly explained and the sailors returned, a sign of diplomatic sanity, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Hardliners who, for their separate reasons in each of the countries where such hardliners live, are still determined to sabotage the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program must have been salivating when they first heard on Tuesday that Iran had taken into custody two U.S. Navy patrol boats and their crews in the Persian Gulf.

This is just the sort of military incident that historically has upended detentes, spoiled diplomatic initiatives, and escalated into something much more than just an incident. Amid the recently heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the potential for escalation of almost anything in the Persian Gulf may be higher than usual.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The hardliners are apt to see sabotage at this moment as especially attractive, coming shortly before the expected formal implementation of the nuclear agreement, an implementation made possible through completion by Iran of its obligations under the agreement.

Although some of the details of how the patrol boats got into this situation are still unclear, two central facts are undisputed. One, the U.S. boats entered Iranian territorial waters. Two, the entry was by accident, evidently for reasons having to do with failure of a navigation system or some other equipment problem.

The first fact was clear to both sides from the beginning; the second fact was accepted by the Iranians once they had a chance to question the U.S. crew about what the boats were doing.

To think about what is the proper response to such an incursion by the state whose waters have been intruded upon, imagine if a couple of Iranian naval craft had entered U.S. territorial waters. Of course the response would not be just to wish the Iranians calm seas and a prosperous voyage.

The United States would insist on questioning the Iranian crews until it was satisfied that it knew what was going on. (American hardliners probably would push for a more hostile response, but one hopes that in such a circumstance prudence would prevail among whoever was making decisions on the U.S. side.)

The Iranian response to this week’s incident in the Gulf was about as proper as one can imagine. After enough questioning for the Iranians to know what was going on, the U.S. crew and their boats were escorted safely back to their own fleet less than 24 hours after being detained. The only thing from which the ten U.S. sailors appear to have suffered during their few hours on Iranian soil (illustrated by a photograph of them lounging in stocking feet in a carpeted room) is boredom.

A spokesman for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (whose naval forces were involved in handling the incident on the Iranian side) issued a public statement acknowledging that the intrusion by the U.S. boats into Iranian territorial waters was unintentional.

We don’t know how agreement-sabotaging American hardliners feel about this outcome, but for a while they tried to milk the incident anyway. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who last year wrote the infamous letter telling the Iranians that the United States should not be trusted to abide by international agreements it negotiates, was speaking on CNN about American “hostages” and about how the Iranians were using the incident to “embarrass” President Obama.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said “Iran is testing the boundaries of this administration’s resolve”,even though there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Iran initiated anything regarding the incident or intended to test anything. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted, “Obama’s humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again”,which sounds rather inappropriate, to put it mildly, given the release of the sailors and their boats shortly afterward.

One of the main conclusions to draw from the incident is what it says about high-level thinking and the balance of political forces on the Iranian side. We probably will never know exactly what was the interplay this week among the Rouhani government, hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard, and the supreme leader, but the bottom line was that cooperation prevailed over confrontation in dealing with the United States.

We have to assume, however, that the political balance inside Iran is still delicate and changeable, and that it may well change if the United States makes cooperation seem less attractive to Iran. If that were to happen, then the next naval incident in the Gulf may look less like the one this week and more like the one nine years ago in which 15 British sailors and marines who were operating in disputed territory along the Iran-Iraq border were held by Iran for two weeks.

Another conclusion concerns the value of the direct U.S.-Iranian diplomacy that was established with negotiation of the nuclear accord after so many years of not talking. In particular, the channel between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a channel greatly developed during the course of the nuclear negotiations, evidently was valuable in quickly and successfully resolving this week’s incident.

As Kerry himself stated, “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.”

Kerry also said, “As a former sailor myself, I know the importance of naval presence around the world and the critical work being done by our Navy in the Gulf region.” He did not mention, but might have had in the back of his mind, that the U.S. craft involved in this incident were riverine patrol boats, as were the boats on which Kerry served in the Vietnam War. The incident was resolved so quickly that Mr. Kerry’s political foes did not have a chance to swift-boat him this time.

The hardline cause is nonetheless at least as much alive on the U.S. side as on the Iranian side. The sabotage attempts will continue, even if they involve statements that, like some of the statements from that direction about this week’s incident, bear little or no correspondence to what Iran actually is doing.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

25 comments for “Diplomatic Sanity Prevails with Iran

  1. Alger
    January 15, 2016 at 18:38

    The only problem I see with this whole situation was the Iranians decision to release the footage of the sailors on their knees. While I am not surprised that the sailors were in this position – seems pretty typical of a way to ensure that they were not hostile, the choice to release the footage can easily be seen as an attempt by the Iranians to show strength and at the same time to “humiliate” the US. It is a shame that with the ease that this situation was resolved that the Iranians chose to not allow these sailors to keep their dignity in tact.

  2. guest
    January 15, 2016 at 07:54

    Now the hardline crazies are lambasting the U.S. naval commander who apologized to the Iranians for the mistake of accidentally intruding into their territory. They want the man punished for having the intelligence to defuse the situation by admitting the reality of the matter. They apparently would prefer he had disrespected Iranian authority and potentially started a major international incident possibly leading to war.

  3. nonplused
    January 15, 2016 at 00:54

    A Russian SU24 was in Turkish airspace (maybe) for 17 seconds and it was shot down, one of the pilots executed while parachuting (war crime), and the other recued at the loss of life of a serviceman and a helicopter (more war crimes). Iran showed extreme diplomacy compared to Turkey. Question them for a bit and then let them go with their boats? Or shoot them down? Russia is simply preparing their response. When it comes the world will be shocked. Probably none so much as the Turkish army. Defect now.

  4. Evangelista
    January 14, 2016 at 21:13

    I suppose there are some international angles there in the Iranian interception of the US Navy boats that drifted into trespass, but I haven’t been able to get beyond the behavior of the Iranians in arresting the Americans and holding them while doing the sorting of circumstances and assessment of the situation.

    I mean, I watched the video and followed the situation, and all I could think was, ‘Man, could we somehow get some of those Iranians over here to train some of our regular ol’ standard-issue civilian police? To teach them how to be civil while following regular-course procedures, how to do policing without rough-house and roust and shout and push and thump and slam?

    I mean, the last time I was arrested, not for any trespassing, or any other possibly suspicious activity, but for being too near to where over-stearoided cops were not wanting people looking at them, there wasn’t any more civil behavior than there was probable cause.

    Damned if I’m not finding myself wanting now to go somewhere international to live, even if watery, so long as the police are civil so their policing only interrupts your time, doesn’t leave you sore and limping for the next two weeks, so you don’t have to offer to complain and be told that if you “Keep working your mouth [they] can give you worse.”.

    Those captured Navy guys had it plush there in custody in Iran, compared to how we have it in custody in the United States. None choked out, no broke necks, none doped to stupor and then hung in their cells…sort of like a real-life version of the land of The Big Rock-Candy Mountain…

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 15, 2016 at 15:32

      Evangelista, borrowing words from a song, “You’re a positive motivating force within my life.”
      I, for one, am inspired by your experienced comments.

  5. mikael
    January 14, 2016 at 16:20

    Anyone sane knows the Iranians behaved impecable and with all the hospitality they could muster, since it was obvious not an hostile act.
    Of course, their explanation about how and why they where there I dont belive a word about, and some other info is also been read about this, but leaves it there, and to claim this was Iranians fault or doings is only done with an brain fully infested with the NeoCON bugg, the Crautzfelt Jachops of intellegence.

    This boats are constructed for shallow waters, water jetts, made in Sweden I think, heafty boats, stopps in 1 and a half boat length from full speed to full stopp.
    The Sweds knows how to buld boats.

    But the Iranians have equally but smaller, witch I like, why arent they missile armed for larger targets, is my only advice, speed is essence.

    And what about the aircarriers, two of them, this was an deliberate atemt to create an condition we call, the Golf of Potemkin, an false flagg, to blame the Iranians, this is glearingly obvious, and somehow the Iranians stopped them on the tracks, with what, Il hope they have what I think they have, to do things previously unthinkable, but with the proper equipent fully accseable to use.

    I consider, to somes suprice, the Iranians to be the True Aryans, since the word is used about an Iranian, an follower of the collection of writings called The Aryian Avesta, aka Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazhda, the light of the world.
    Aryan means an Iranian, period, and the Aryans where Persians as the Iranians are to day, Not Arabs but Persians.
    My depest respect goes to an ancient people.
    Kick ass.


    • J'hon Doe II
      January 15, 2016 at 13:16

      Many thanks for your timely comment, mikael.
      The adage concerning the blind leading the blind is profoundly apropos in this age of vast miseducation.
      Peace, indeed… .

      The Achaemenid Empire (/əˈkiːmənɪd/; c. 550–330 BC), also called the First Persian Empire, was an empire based in Western Asia, founded by Cyrus the Great, notable for embracing various civilizations and becoming the largest empire of ancient history, spanning at its maximum extent from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east. It is equally notable for its successful model of a centralised, bureaucratic administration (through satraps under a king) and a government working to the profit of its subjects, for building infrastructure such as a postal system and road systems and the use of an official language across its territories and a large professional army and civil services (inspiring similar systems in later empires), and for emancipation of slaves including the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and is noted in Western history as the antagonist of the Greek city states during the Greco-Persian Wars. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was built in the empire as well.

      By the 7th century BC, the Persians had settled in the southwestern portion of the Iranian plateau in the region of Persis, which came to be their heartland, and with Babylon as their main capital. From this region, Cyrus the Great advanced to defeat the Kingdom of Media, the Kingdom of Lydia, and the Babylonian Empire, and established the Achaemenid Empire, which, at its greatest extent, stretched from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east, and included all modern territories of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, all significant population centers of Ancient Egypt as far west as Libya, Thrace-Macedonia and Bulgaria-Paeonia, the Black Sea coastal regions of Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, all of Abkhazia, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and parts of the North Caucasus, much of Central Asia, Afghanistan; encompassing around 8 million square kilometers across three continents, making it the largest empire in the ancient world.

      With some population estimates of 50 million in 480 BC, the Achaemenid Empire at its peak was one of the empires with the highest share of the global population.

      The delegation of power to local governments is thought to have eventually weakened the king’s authority, causing resources to be expended in attempts to subdue local rebellions, and leading to the disunity of the region at the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 334 BC. This viewpoint, however, is challenged by some modern scholars who argue that the Achaemenid Empire was not facing any such crisis around the time of Alexander, and that only internal succession struggles within the Achaemenid family ever came close to weakening the empire.

      Alexander, an avid admirer of Cyrus the Great, would eventually cause the collapse of the empire and its disintegration around 330 BC into what later became the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Seleucid Empire, in addition to other minor territories which gained independence at that time. However, the Persian population of the central plateau continued to thrive and eventually reclaimed power by the 2nd century BC.

      The historical mark of the Achaemenid Empire went far beyond its territorial and military influences and included cultural, social, technological and religious influences as well. Many Athenians adopted Achaemenid customs in their daily lives in a reciprocal cultural exchange, some being employed by, or allied to the Persian kings. The impact of Cyrus the Great’s Edict of Restoration is mentioned in Judeo-Christian texts and the empire was instrumental in the spread of Zoroastrianism as far east as China. Even Alexander the Great adopted some of its customs, venerating the Persian kings including Cyrus the Great, and receiving proskynesis as they did, despite Macedonian disapproval. The Persian Empire would also set the tone for the politics, heritage and history of modern Iran.

  6. Alex T
    January 14, 2016 at 15:19

    It’s so enlightening to read an astute article and comments on this subject versus the neocon, zionist, NFL football mentality of kicking ass and taking names in the name of USA, USA, USA!
    Keep up the good work Consortium News.

  7. alexander
    January 14, 2016 at 10:05

    Dear Mr Pillar,

    The absence of belligerent behavior on the part Iran, in this incident, goes a long way to undermine the venomous Neocon claims against that nation.

    It may be small wonder that our Media, having been unable to spin this incident into a ” casus belli” will drop it quickly and pretend it never happened.

    It is a tribute to our President, and the few intelligent people remaining in our government that the brokered Iran deal came off despite the incessant “braying” of the bellicose King Bibi for yet another “war” in the middle east.

    It is a tragedy for the entire world, that this effort at detente took so much time away from the US top priority of resolving the Israel /Palestine issue once and for all.

    Many have argued that the timing of the” Iran nuclear scare” was intended by “wily” King Bibi, to head off the mounting pressure from the world powers to enforce a dismantling of Israels illegal “settlement enterprise” through a security council resolution.

    Given Gareth Porters revelation that the”sanction inducing” Iran incriminating ” nuclear laptop” was a phony ( most probably supplied by Israel through the MEK) to begin with, one could hazard a guess this is probably, indeed, the case.

    It has become painfully clear, that President Obama will refrain from pushing Israel to do whats “right”, in the remaining time he has left in the White House.

    Thus kicking the can of a” just resolution” down the road, yet one more time.

    It comes as no surprise, that nearly every candidate for President of the United States, with, perhaps, the exception of “Bernie” and “The Donald”, have made zero overtures towards engaging in a viable plan for peace in Palestine.

    Making it clear to all, that “peace” is the last thing on the mind of King Bibi’s Israel, and its coterie of well heeled neocons in the US.

    How sad a day it is for us all that this is, in fact, the case.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    January 14, 2016 at 00:30

    Most Americans aren’t buying any of this. Unless the Iranians had boarded that U.S. Navy vessel on the Hudson, it’s like, who cares. You see last Friday Americans were told that the economy was great. What that news really meant, was how the economy was great, if you had landed that second other part time job you were interviewing for. The only really good news last week was if your favorite NFL team had won a spot in the second game of the play offs. Americans don’t like seeing videos of their sailors with their hands up upon their heads while kneeling under the inspection of an Iranian marine, but hey back home here we’re fighting off the cops for our lives that do matter, dog gone it. Plus, no American red or blue believes our news media anymore. So send those sailors home so we can thank them, then send them back over so we may forget the war their fighting to keep us safe over here….what ever war that is. Where’s Iran on this map? Is it anywheres near Denver? River boats in like McHales Navy? Maybe the Donald will get Iran to pay for a wall somewhere. Hillary will probably advocate a no fly zone. Cruz, will promise to appoint McCain & Graham each a cabinet position, and then go on to carpet bomb the Iranians on his first day. If America gets anymore cartoonish Universal and Disney will rival for the patent to turn us all into a ride. In fact if the Neocon’s really want a war with Iran, just quote the Ayatollah for saying something bad about Caitlyn Jenner. No offense to Caitlyn, but really this could work. Seriously, Americans really don’t care, because deep down they know it’s all a lie anyway. Again, where is Iran on this map?

  9. angryspittle
    January 13, 2016 at 23:30

    And guess what? If we weren’t there this wouldn’t have even happened to give the whackaloons the opportunity to call for bombing the shit out of somebody.

  10. Bruce Spencer
    January 13, 2016 at 20:42

    If we apply the same logic that the US used when Turkey shot down a Russian jet which they claimed had strayed for a few seconds into Turkish airspace that “turkey has every right to defend its territory” then Iran should have been able to blast the patrol boats out of the water without any repercussions!

    While we can salute Iran for not behaving so stupidly we must condemn the US for yet again applying double standards (or is it the absence of any morality?) in foreign affairs.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 14, 2016 at 00:40

      Bruce you are a quick thinker, and I agree. I was also thinking though, how this could have been a mini Dulles Brothers planned Gary Powers U2 Flight over Russia kind of thing. Either way it’s never what it appears to be, is it? Good observation on your part.

      • David Smith
        January 14, 2016 at 13:53

        Mr. Tedesky, you are most likely 100% correct on why this incident happened.

  11. Robert
    January 13, 2016 at 20:35

    Another USS Donald Cook kind of incident?? A Keshe technology demonstration?? Is it possible that Iran has developed superior technology that could easily defeat an America or Israeli attack??

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 13, 2016 at 22:28

      Oh PLEASE, Robert.!.
      Stay at home with the easily led eleMentals

      • J'hon Doe II
        January 15, 2016 at 15:51

        Robert’s Question: Why is Israel killing all these Iranian physicists??
        J’hon Doe’s Reply: Mossad specializes in targeted assassinations.

        The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 4 November 1995

        Just so you know, Robert… .

  12. J'hon Doe II
    January 13, 2016 at 20:31

    If the Hostile Neocons and the Ignorant Evangelicals had an historical clue they’d be filled with a sense of veneration for the Persian nation (Iran) of people.

    The rejection of world history is a pathway into objectivism, the non-society of human beings, a descent into Poe’s maelstrom; the Globalist (fascist) Ordered World of computernumberedbeingsorganizedintomonitizedcompartmentsgradedbynumberededucationedlevelstrainedtocompetewithrobotsinthe BraveNewWorld.

    Will man’s Evolution lead to our extinction (devolution) by means of Ignorance? DOH!!!
    Does the chain of history Matter Not? We got here How? Or, does only Now have Matter?
    Iran is the BoogieMan because… Israel/Saudi/Neocon/Evangelical “Christian” expositors declare/deem/propagandize/implant the delusion of such, as in Poe’s, “The Devil in the Belfry.”
    With a knowledge of world history, and a turn of the kaleidoscope, an entirely different view appears… .

    To Wit:
    Was the Persian king Cyrus who permitted the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their Temple Jewish? This is just one of the questions and intrigues surrounding the beginning of Jewish history in the Second Commonwealth.

    Salvation from extermination at the hands of Haman changed Jews through the Persian Empire in the most profound ways. They achieved a new insight into their relationship with God, their commitment to His Torah, to themselves and to their place in the world.

    Purim prepared them for the next great challenge, the electrifying announcement by Cyrus, king of Persia, undisputed ruler of the civilized world, who granted the Jews permission to return to their land and rebuild the Temple.


  13. Ron
    January 13, 2016 at 19:53

    I glad that we’ve gotten these guys back so quickly. I’m still wondering what’s happened to the boats. Have those been returned also?

    • January 20, 2016 at 13:39

      Hello Ron!!

      Why should they want the boats back?

      There are many good reasons, but only one real one.

      It is a valuable piece of equipment​.​ Well, money and value really don’t really matter to governments and Armed Forces, but even if they got it back it would probably have to be scrapped as damaged or because it was possibly tampered with to which would render it unreliable for active service, so….. uh-uh!

      It is filled with Very and Utmost Top Secret material, informations and stuff? Well, they have been through all of that Hi-Tech, Top Secret Stealth, Intel stuff with a fine tooth comb, and there ain’t none of it very secret anymore! Uh-uh!

      To recover from the embarrassment of having someone take control of your intruder and run away with your toy? C’mon, any face they might have lost is already well covered with egg, and lost forever! Uh-uh!

      So, why do they want it back? They don’t!

      But, before Iran can refuse to give it back they gotta ask ’em for it… ?

      And then, when they refuse, you have a theft, an act of war, and you can go bomb the shit out of them, and run them back into the stone age! Neat thinking ?

      Well,stealing ​two boats​ is not exactly Pearl Harbor, ya know… and no matter how badly they dress this up, it simply ain’t gonna work the way Pearl Harbor did!

      But, these guys are amateurs, and it is all they got… and they thought that two or three killings of bin Laden would work, didn’t they? And that ​UNDERWEAR​ bomb story would work, didn’t they? And a shoe bomber? And, how about the guy who was going to take out Manhattan with a 20 liter can of petrol a tank of cooking gas and a bag of chemical horseshit?

      Just how incredible do these guys get?

      It seems there is no limit to how ridiculous they can get, so why not float the boat and see if it sails? Who knows? They refuse, we send a few more of those other ones over there and blow up some Iranian ass?

      Hell, they will probably send them, anyway​.

      All those idiots​ in Iran​ who thought they could work with the American government, or that the American government is different under Obama or has changed its tune because of the Rohani administration are simply idiots.​

      Read: THE DAY AFTER – Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich

  14. Vish Varnay
    January 13, 2016 at 19:49

    President Obama did not mention the incident in his SOTU address, because it was all under control and handled with communications with Iran. Something that may have not occurred had we continued down the path of embargo and exclusion.
    But it did make the so called “hard liners” and the Presidents detractors look as foolish as they truly are.
    They may as well have had strobe lights on top of their pointed heads with their sky is falling, and war that is what were good for mentality hanging out of their dumb arses!

  15. dahoit
    January 13, 2016 at 18:57

    Yankee Come home.

    • January 18, 2016 at 16:26

      Sure. Two boats with trained naval personell and it was unintentional ?

      We should not assume that suddenly,randomly, peaceful diplomacy is the new order.

      The United States has not abandoned its aspirations of becoming a global hegemon.
      The US has never sought peace. Peace and expansion/domination are incompatible.

      Read: THE DAY AFTER – Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich

      As recently as April, 2015, during a speech at the Army War College Strategy Conference, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work elaborated on how the Pentagon plans to counter the three types of wars supposedly being waged by Iran, Russia, and China. These goals have been facilitated with the Nuclear Deal.

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