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Boat drama: Did Iran toy with the U.S. and the world?

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

Iran seized two U.S. navy ships and their 10 sailors, who were released in less than 24 hours. A few weeks prior, Tehran provoked the U.S. navy by firing unguided rockets and ballistic missiles nearby. Now Iran is being treated as a hero by the U.S. government for releasing the sailors.

Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Iranians “for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter,” and referred to the nuclear deal as the reason for this immediate resolution and change in Iran’s behavior.

The administration of President Barack Obama now has more leverage over Congress to lift sanctions against Iran in a few days. The administration can tell Congress that if it were not for the nuclear deal, Tehran would not have released the Americans.

The naval drama was a win-win scenario for Iran’s hardliners and moderates, as well as the Obama administration.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The naval drama was a win-win scenario for Iran’s hardliners and moderates, as well as the Obama administration. It allowed Tehran to appear reasonable in the eyes of the international community. It also drew attention away from other critical issues that were potentially postponing implementation of the nuclear deal.

For example, Iran’s recent actions regarding its ballistic arsenal cast doubt on its intentions and spurred concerns in the U.S. Congress. President Hassan Rowhani ordered the expansion of the missile program, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tested ballistic missiles several times after the nuclear accord was reached.

Weeks ago, Iran fired several unguided rockets close to the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Straits of Hormuz. Navy spokesman Kevin Stephens said this was “unsafe, unprofessional and inconsistent with international maritime law.” Other ongoing issues include the cases of Iranian-Americans imprisoned in Iran. There has been considerable pressure on Washington to urge Tehran to release them before the lifting of sanctions.

Hardliners

Iranian hardliners are concerned that the nuclear deal and growing ties with the United States send the wrong message to their youth. Their latest actions, including the seizure of the ships, are meant as a reminder that they are still in control, and that the nuclear deal does not mean infiltration of American culture. Keeping Iran isolated makes it easier for hardliners to maintain control. They showed a video of an American sailor apologizing to Iran on state media, to highlight that they are not weakened by the nuclear deal.

In the United States, the only obstacle to lifting sanctions is Congress, not Obama. Congress was pushing for new sanctions on Iran for defying the U.N. Security Council by testing ballistic missiles. By seizing American sailors, the hardliners sent a message to those they call “troublemakers in the U.S. Congress” that if they create problems, Tehran can endanger U.S. national security and regional interests.

Iranian moderates and the Obama administration also scored political points by showing the success of diplomacy. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC released the American sailors immediately as they need the anticipated influx of cash coming from sanctions relief.

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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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