Iran's seizure of two U.S. naval ships and 44's response show that the country the president hoped would secure his foreign policy legacy now has the ability to hold it hostage.
44 didn’t mention the incident in the Persian Gulf during his State of the Union speech because, according to administration officials, the U.S. does not consider the boarding of the ships and the seizure of 10 U.S. sailors to be a "hostile act." Instead, the president praised the diplomatic agreement on Iran's nukes.
Even if Iran quickly releases the 10 U.S. military personnel it took custody of, as senior administration officials assured reporters Tuesday evening, the incident is a significant escalation in the Persian Gulf. It shows that despite a nuclear agreement with the West, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is willing to board U.S. vessels, take American soldiers into custody, and, according to CNN citing U.S. officials, confiscate the crew's communications and GPS equipment.
There are several signs the administration and the Iranian government were not working well together. As the Iranian state press reported the sailors had been “arrested” for “snooping,” a senior administration official gave reporters conflicting information, saying the boats had malfunctioned and the sailors would be released “promptly.” It took several hours before the captured sailors were allowed to make contact with their superiors.
The incident is just latest in a series of Iranian provocations since agreeing to the nuclear deal in July. In late December, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels fired unguided missiles near the USS Truman; the U.S. did not retaliate. Also last month, Kerry wrote to the Iranian government to assure it the U.S. government would waive new visa restrictions passed by Congress, after Tehran objected. The U.S. indefinitely delayed imposing sanctions on Iran in response to its tests of ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions.
The incident comes just as Western leaders were hoping to announce the implementation day for the nuclear agreement. The State of the Union speech, officials said, meant to highlight that legacy and present 44's case that the world was more safe and secure because of his diplomatic achievements. To put it mildly, Iran undermined that message Tuesday.
The administration's reaction, first to play down any incident and then to seek accommodation with Tehran, is becoming the norm in the U.S.-Iran relationship in the wake of the Iran deal, even as Iran escalates tensions with the U.S. and its allies.
The Iranians were clear when striking the deal that they would not change their negative views and aggressive policies against the U.S., Jeffrey said, and they have been consistent in that. To his thinking, it is the administration that has wavered between hope and skepticism that the Iran deal would yield broader progress in the bilateral relationship.
The Iranians know the administration is committed to preserving the Iran deal above all else and they are using that knowledge to get away with mischief. The administration is so committed to claiming the Iran deal as part of its legacy, officials won’t reverse course and take a tougher line now.
The incident also shows that the faction of Iran's government--led by its president, Hassan Rouhani--that negotiated the nuclear deal has little influence over Iran's national security state. U.S. analysts and most experts see these incidents as provocations aimed at weakening the nuclear agreement that is supported by Rouhani. This dynamic is particularly important because of elections next month for Iran's parliament and powerful assembly of experts, which will choose Iran's next supreme leader, which has the ultimate authority over Iran's nuclear program.
On Capitol Hill, there is a determined behind the scenes effort to bring new Iran sanctions legislation to the Senate floor, focused on all of Iran’s non-nuclear bad behavior: its ballistic missile testing, human rights violations, holding of three other American hostages, and sponsorship of terror around the region.