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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Washington and Tehran score diplomatic points, indirectly make Moscow and Ankara look ridiculous

Just as soon as it had begun, it was over.

Ten sailors from the United States Navy, nine men and one woman, who were taken into Iranian custody while running exercises in the Persian Gulf, have returned to American hands unharmed.

Apparently, the sailors were conducting an exercise in the Gulf when they drifted into Iranian waters. They spent less than 24 hours in Iranian custody.

The mood in Washington and Tehran seems to be one of relief and perhaps even excitement. Iranian state media spoke in neutral terms about the sailors. "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.”

Eight years ago, British Marines did the same and were detained by the Revolutionary Guard. They, however, were held in detention for thirteen days before being released. The standoff between Iran and the UK (and their close allies in the United States) further exacerbated tensions and rhetoric on both sides. 

It's been thirty-seven years since Iran's Islamic Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. In those years, this kind of diplomacy was unheard of. While Iranian (and some American) hardliners still furiously rabble about the evils of their opponents, perhaps this is the turning corner in American-Iranian relations. 

Next month, Iranians will head to the polls to vote in a very important election. They will elect both the Iranian Consultative Assembly, also known as the Parliament or Majlis, and the Assembly of Experts, an upper house of sorts that will choose the next Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Khamenei either resigns or dies. Among those running for the Assembly of Experts are current President Hassan Rouhani, who was swept into office in a landslide win in Iran's 2013 Presidential Election, former President Ali Akbar Rasfanjani, and the late Ayatollah Khomenei's grandson Hassan Khomenei. 

Those elections are still some days off and the climate will take some time to materialize as candidacies are approved or disapproved by Khamenei. But however they turn out, Washington and Tehran have shown some serious diplomatic chops-especially in the face of other rivals such as Russia and Turkey. 

On November 24th, 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 plane. One of the pilots was killed by a militia in Syria that captured him after he ejected from the plane, while the other was returned to Russia. 

Both Moscow and Ankara immediately started pointing fingers and squabbling over who was to blame for the spat. Tensions have unfortunately remained high with Russia bulldozing Turkish fruit, a nationalist crowd pelting the Turkish Embassy in Moscow with rocks and eggs, economic sanctions, and accusations ranging from the Islamic fundamentalist  to the bizarrely sexual. More can be read here in my post Yet Another Nationalist Spat. 

Moscow's anger at Ankara was understandable and warranted. Russia is a country where patriotism flourishes and the Russian Armed Forces command great respect among the Russian people. The responses by Moscow and Ankara to this unfortunate and short-sighted mess, however, have been nothing but counter-productive. Nationalism, which flourishes in both countries, has prevented the two sides from coming to the negotiation table and working out methods to prevent this kind of thing from happening a second time. 

None of that will have to happen between Washington and Tehran. The United States has its sailors back. Washington has thanked Tehran for the swift resolution of a precarious situation that could have mushroomed into something much, much worse such as the recent Iran-Saudi Arabia mess. Tehran responded to accidental breach of the waters it controls in the Persian Gulf with force, but with restraint as well. 

Take notes, Moscow and Ankara. This is how you resolve a precarious conflict. 

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