A recent naval incident in the Persian Gulf highlights a key, yet under-recognized development in U.S.-Iranian relations, in which both sides have established a way of dealing with each other and very publicly despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. This reflects our assessment that after decades of hostility the geopolitics of the Middle East, especially after the rise of the Islamic State, have evolved in such a way as to converge U.S. and Iranian security interests. After the nuclear agreement, a situation has emerged where the two are now able to calmly deal with incidents that not too long ago would have led to major confrontations.
On Jan. 12, the naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps took control of two U.S. vessels and arrested 10 sailors after they came within three miles of the Iranian naval base at Farsi Island due to a navigational malfunction. Many expected this would lead to a major crisis between the two countries. Indeed, many commentators said that the incident, which took place just hours before President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, put his administration in a tough spot.
However, contrary to expectations, the incident was a non-issue. The administration handled the matter amicably: Secretary of State John Kerry contacted his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, informed him that the incursion into Iranian waters was a mistake and secured assurances that the sailors and the riverine patrol boats would be released shortly (which they were, within less than 24 hours). All of this occurred well before news of the incident was released to the public.
Even the generally hawkish IRGC largely abstained from its usual bellicose rhetoric and dealt with the incident in a rather cooperative manner. Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, the IRGC’s naval chief, told media that after investigations it quickly became apparent that the U.S. boats did not enter Iranian waters with hostile intent. This is in sharp contrast with a 2007 incident in which the IRGC detained 15 British naval personnel for two weeks after being captured in controversial circumstances, with London maintaining that the vessel did not venture beyond Iraqi waters.
Explanations abound for what is being treated as surprising outcome. Some of them point to the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani pursuing a non-confrontational policy. Others suggest that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei got involved, because the IRGC reports to him, and that he wants to avoid a conflict since the nuclear deal is about to lead to the first wave of relaxed sanctions.
Such assessments overplay the role of personalities and the disagreements between the Iranian government and its hardline opponents in the clergy and military. The prompt resolution of the situation underscores two important realities.
First, the rivalry between the moderate and radical centers of power in Tehran—while very real—is not going to be pursued at the cost of the Iranian national interest. The factions within the Islamic republic are quite capable of setting aside partisan differences for the greater national good. Rhetoric aside, all factions realize that a non-hostile relationship with the United States is in their interest at this time. While extremely influential, the IRGC is not a rogue entity beyond the control of the country’s elected political leadership.
Second, U.S.-Iranian dealings have become normalized. It is true that the negotiations led by Kerry and Zarif have created a working relationship between the two sides. But it is not one based on personal relationships; rather bilateral relations between the two states. The naval personnel of the two countries—far removed from their respective leaderships—were able to deal with each other without escalation before the matter reached the U.S. State Department and the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Of course this does not mean that the two sides have completely made peace. There will still be many issues on which the two sides will disagree. It is very difficult for the United States and Iran to move past 35 years of unremitting hostility. Domestic opponents of both governments will continue to play a key role in sustaining much of the status quo. Furthermore, since the United States’ strategy pursues a balance of power in the region, Washington’s interests will clash with Tehran’s, as it seeks to be a major power in the region. While Iran does not want to be a pariah anymore, its detente with the United States and the West is imperfect, and low oil prices mean Tehran does not have as much of an incentive to cooperate as it did when the negotiations began.
That said, it is significant that despite these hurdles the two sides have found the means to deal with potentially hazardous situations and successfully rendered the naval incident a non-event.