The Iran Hostage Crisis that Wasn’t
By J.E. McCollough
The Great Iran-U.S. Sailor Hostage Crisis of 2016 was over in a day. American punditry barely had time to start building its collective outrage at the Iranian provocation before there was no longer anything to be outraged about.
Could things have escalated? Sure. Are the images of American sailors being held on their knees, hands on heads, embarrassing and aggravating to see? Absolutely. From the U.S. perspective the Iranian action may seem a little excessive – would the U.S. have detained a foreign navy’s sailors? Probably not. After all, we don’t react in the slightest when Mexican helicopters cross the border and fire on our border guards.
As frustrating as it may be to see our troops held at gunpoint, the incident really wasn’t that big of a deal. Iran stopped, detained, briefly questioned and subsequently released ten U.S. sailors as they transited water patrolled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. The IRGC-N has a long reputation for aggressive action and for giving its officers wide left and right lateral limits for acting on their own initiative.
While plenty of pundits and politicians in the U.S. would like there to be an Iranian conspiracy in which Tehran once again openly mocks the United States and embarrasses our President during the State of the Union, in all likelihood the sailors’ detention was the result of an ambitious IRGC-N officer. And, in reality, if the U.S. Sailors were in Iranian territorial waters as they seem to have been, their detention wasn’t even a violation of international norms. In fact, the Iranian reaction was fairly tame compared to how Turkey reacted recently to Russian jets crossing into Turkish airspace.
That said, we did learn a couple of things from this brief incident.
First, the quick release of our sailors by Tehran probably means the Supreme Leader now feels the U.S. owes Iran a favor. Demanding special recognition for doing something they’re supposed to do or obligated to do anyway is a common Iranian “negotiating strategy.” So, next time Iran wants something from the U.S., expect the Iranian doing the negotiating to say something like, “Hey, now, remember that time we released your sailors in a day? Yah, you owe us for that.” Kind of like your kid demanding a trophy and a raise in his allowance because he took the trash out like he was supposed to. Nevermind it was the right thing to do, and something they would have done anyway. Obviously, Tehran had to release our military personnel quickly, the nuclear deal is about to go into effect. Iran doesn’t want to do anything that would throw a wrench in its efforts to get sanctions relief and its billions of dollars unfrozen. But the way the Iranians spin the release gives them a future advantage.
Releasing the ten sailors also gives Iran an out for holding actual American hostages, the Iranians are still imprisoning four U.S. citizens on trumped up spy charges. This event will make it harder to get them released, because now Iran can reply to our demands, “We’ve released ten of your people and you’ve released none of ours. Why should we keep giving you Americans when you won’t give back any Iranians?”
Second, there couldn’t have been any Chiefs on board either vessel, or they’d have tried to fight the entire Iranian navy. Clearly, they were operating with an ensign or LTJG in charge.
Ok, not really, I’m sure whoever was in charge acted professionally and honorably, and the video released by Iran seems to support that idea. Murphy’s Law always kicks in at the wrong time; having a mechanical problem and drifting into Iranian territorial waters isn’t much different from getting a flat in LA and the only available offramp takes you into Compton. Except, of course, the international incident aspect. They weren’t carrying an Enigma machine, there was no reason to start shooting especially with half of the sailors in a crippled vessel. I’m glad the officer in charge made choices that got all of his people home safely.
But, without question, the Navy needs to take steps to prevent such an incident in the future. This kind of situation was always very much in the realm of possibility, and the Navy was supposed to be ahead of it. According to CNN, after Iran captured fifteen British sailors and Marines in 2007 as they operated in the Persian Gulf, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen told CNN’s Barbara Starr, “We’ve got procedures in place which are very much designed to carry out the mission and protect the sailors who are there, and I would not expect any sailors to be able to be seized by the Iranian navy or the Iranian Republican Guard.”
Mullen never clarified what those “procedures in place” might be, but, whatever they were/are they failed in this instance. Sure, on this occasion it all worked out and we got our sailors back unharmed with fairly minimal negative publicity. Back in 2007 the Iranians paraded the British sailors around for two weeks, demanded they make apologies on video and generally humiliated the British government.
So, it wasn’t as bad as that. Still, in the long, ongoing rivalry/simmering hostilities between Iran and the U.S., this episode is a net loss for the United States. The Iranians get to look magnanimous, granting us a favor, and we just look weak. Gotta fix that.