On Tuesday evening, just prior to President Obama’s last State of the Union address, a geopolitical black swan landed on Farsi Island.
Ten US sailors and two US Navy boats were seized by Iran when they purportedly entered Iranian waters “illegally.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Over the past several weeks, Obama has again come under fire for a “soft” approach to Iran after the IRGC conducted a live-fire rocket test some 1,500 yards from a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz. That incident led directly to calls from GOP lawmakers to slap Tehran with fresh sanctions in connection with Iran’s test-firing of two next gen surface-to-surface missiles.
On the morning the new sanctions were set to be announced, the administration got cold feet and decided the US needed “more time” to study the measures. For Republicans, the abrupt 180 was further evidence that The White House is hopelessly inept in its dealings with what the GOP still deems a pariah state.
Of course the reason the administration shied away from announcing new sanctions is that the old sanctions haven’t been lifted yet. That is, the ink on the nuclear accord is barely dry and implementation is imminent. Angering Tehran would risk undermining the whole deal and that, in turn, would jeopardize an important part of Obama’s legacy.
Thus, the President had an impossibly difficult decision to make on Tuesday evening: mention the sailors and risk escalating the conflict and turning it into a protracted spat that could both derail the nuclear deal and imperil US citizens, or don’t mention the sailors and risk looking ridiculous by discussing “improvements” in relations with Tehran just as everyone in the chamber (not to mention the millions watching at home) wondered what’s to come of the ten hostages being held on Farsi.
The President chose not to mention the incident, but nevertheless, the Ayatollah had pulled of a rather epic propaganda coup. Effectively the IRGC clouded the President’s final address to the nation and it now appears there will be no repercussions.
On Wednesday both Iranian and US officials confirmed that all ten of the sailors have been released. The sailors departed the Iranian base on Farsi Island at 0843 GMT on the same boats that brought them there, a statement from the Navy said. “There are no indications the sailors were harmed,” the Pentagon added.
Iran says the decision to free the sailors was based on a determination that they’re incursion into Iranian waters wasn’t intentional.
Iranian television aired the following images:
"There appeared to be a bit of equivocation from Iran earlier Wednesday, with Iranian officials saying talk of an imminent release was 'speculation'", The Washington Post notes, adding that "an Iranian Revolutionary Guard spokesman, General Ramezan Sharif, indicated that the Iran’s next move and its timing will be determined by an investigation."
After questioning the group, the IRGC determined that a "malfunctioning navigation device" was the cause of the "intrusion."
Here's the official word from Fars: “Following technical and operational investigations and in interaction with relevant political and national security bodies of the country and after it became clear that the US combat vessels’ illegal entry into the Islamic Republic of Iran’s waters was the result of an unpurpuseful [sic] action and a mistake and after they extended an apology, the decision was made to release them."
Right. In reality, there's no telling why the sailors were in Iranian waters - maybe it was a "mistake" or maybe not. We'll never know. What we do know is that Iran has once again embarrassed the Obama administration and this time not by "testing" a rocket or two near an aircraft carrier or launching a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload to Israel, but by actually capturing US soldiers and vessels. Expect the calls to get (much) louder from Republicans for new sanctions and a rethinking of The White House's relationship with Obama's new "friends" in Tehran.