Iran kept its promise and released the U.S. Navy sailors with their two small boats back into the Persian Gulf late Wednesday, but not before snapping a wealth of images and probably scrutinizing the vessels right down to the last bolt.
Tehran made certain to get as much mileage as possible from the unexpected windfall of the boats that drifted Tuesday a scant mile (two kilometers, 1.2 miles) into its territorial waters.
Seizing both, Tehran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif assured U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the crews of a lone female and nine male sailors would be released “promptly.”
But they were held for 24 hours on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf – home to a base of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps — for as long as could reasonably be managed without an international public relations disaster. Although Iran does not usually concern itself with public relations, this time it was important.
After all, Iran is on track for “implementation day” shortly — the day when the economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic are to be lifted. On that day billions of dollars are to start flowing again into its coffers, and oil can once again begin flowing in the other direction, towards its still-loyal European customers.
Meanwhile, the IRGC technicians had plenty of time to examine previously inaccessible American technology and equipment, photograph it from every angle and probably sample it as well. Perhaps some tinkering? Anything taken? These are questions that will only be answered once the sailors are safely back to base and debriefed, and engineers can go over the equipment.
The sailors were also filmed in humiliating circumstances, on their knees with hands behind their heads — good footage for reminding folks on the home front and abroad who’s the boss on the high seas, and at home, when it counts.
That footage and those snaps are now being released to the Iranian and global public. The images will also jog the memories of anyone old enough to remember the days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, those who watched the coverage of the American Embassy hostages in Tehran.
The message is crystal clear: If you choose to sail into Persian Gulf waters, beware. We await you, and at any opportunity we will pounce. This is an area under our complete control. Enter at your own risk.
The lack of response by Washington when a Middle East nation violates UN Security Council resolutions – like the test of a ballistic missile by Iran last October – is an invitation to an escalation at some point down the line.
More to the point, the message to Tehran when its Navy fires a rocket almost directly at an American military vessel — as it did last month — and life continues with “business as usual” is one that is dangerous and very unwise.
In the Middle East, a non-response is perceived as weakness, vulnerability and availability for more of the same. For those who look to the U.S. as an ally, this is a very bad message indeed.