For Secretary of State John Kerry, the capture of American sailors by Iran this week was an opportunity to create a “good story.” From his perspective, he’s right. The incident might have become an excuse for an escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf and resulted in the Americans being held for an extended period. Instead, U.S. personnel were returned unharmed by their captors within a day. The incident could thus be counted as a triumph for Kerry’s diplomacy. Indeed, Kerry was quick to claim that the resolution showed that the new era in U.S.-Iran relations had already begun paying interest above and beyond his belief that the nuclear deal he had negotiated enhanced the security of the U.S. and its allies.
As far as the well being of the sailors in question, Kerry is probably right. If the U.S. was not interested in cultivating ties with Tehran and about to deliver it a huge cash reward in terms of lifted sanctions, the captured Americans might have been in for a very bad time indeed. But the full measure of what it means to be living in the post-Iran Deal-era can’t be measured solely in terms of defusing one potentially dangerous incident. Though this is not the message that Kerry wants us to hear, as it turns out, the pictures of surrendered sailors on their knees and a filmed apology by their inexperienced commander will probably have a far greater impact on those looking to the U.S. for leadership as Iran seeks regional hegemony than the prospect of more harmonious relations between Washington and Tehran.
If we are judge by the spin about what happened that is coming through in administration-friendly outlets like the New York Times, the Pentagon and the State Department are working hard to make the incident appear to be the fault of the Americans involved. That may well be true but the full court press to make it appear as if it was the “good story” Kerry wanted, tells us more about the administration’s mindset than anything else. Though we were constantly assured during the debate over the Iran deal that the pact’s purpose was to end the nuclear threat and not create a new era of Iran détente, the months since the negotiations ended have proved the opposite.
We didn’t need to see what happened this week to know that Kerry believes good relations with Iran are his priority. The administration proved with its refusal to demand real accountability for Iran over its past research on possible military dimensions of its nuclear program and its supine approach to Iran’s violation of United Nations prohibitions on its ballistic missile program, that there is no issue it considers important enough to cause it to rethink its desire for a honeymoon with the Islamist regime. The indecent rush to lift sanctions ahead of schedule in spite of Iran’s missile violations and proven role in terrorism was proof enough of Kerry’s desire to appease Iran. Yet long before that, years of refusal to take action in Syria to remove Iran’s ally Bashar Assad testifies to Washington’s mindset that sees détente with Tehran as the most important thing that it can achieve in the Middle East. If that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and led to an international refugee crisis then so much the worst for them. Besides, the administration had the fallback position that held that Iran was key to solving the crisis that appeasing their interests had helped create.
But now that the administration has achieved its objective and is about to implement the deal, it’s fair to ask what this will mean for the United States.
Clearly, as Kerry is at pains to point out, so long as the U.S. has something it can offer Iran, the ayatollahs won’t be looking to do anything that will be so outrageous that even President Obama would be forced to respond. Thus, it’s obvious that minor incidents like a couple of American boats going off course in the Persian Gulf won’t be turned into new hostage incidents. That’s a minor achievement for U.S. diplomacy, but it must be remembered that Iran is already holding four American hostages that have been largely forgotten by Obama and Kerry. Kidnapping American sailors would have been a strategic error that would have cost the Iranians dearly, and Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei isn’t a fool.
So long as the U.S. is acquiescing to a continuing Iranian nuclear program that will likely yield them the bomb they want after the deal expires in a decade there is no reason to antagonize the Americans in a way that would undermine Obama’s appeasement policy.
But by airing the humiliating photos and video, the Iranians were sending the region a message that put an exclamation point on other recent developments. Saudi Arabia already feels abandoned, leading it to extreme actions against Iranian allies that make the region more dangerous. It also reminded Iran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries and Hamas allies that they needn’t fear America anymore than Tehran does.
An Iran that is strong enough and secure enough in its moral supremacy over the Americans doesn’t need to take any more American hostages. But it can throw its weight around in Iraq and Syria in such a way as to make its drive for regional hegemony even more credible. What the Saudis and other Arab governments, as well as Israel, are seeing is an America that is solely interested in good relations with Iran. The Americans are perceived as merely grateful that Iran isn’t holding onto stray naval vessels while letting Iran do what it wants throughout the region.
What the naval incident proves is that Obama has set a very low standard for Iranian good behavior. As much as Americans should be glad about the sailors going free, they need to understand that on other issues of substance that speak to Iran’s ability to impose an axis of its allies across the region, the U.S. has gotten nothing for all of the gifts it is bestowing on the Islamist regime in the nuclear deal. The post-deal environment is one in which Iran has gotten stronger. A strong Iran doesn’t need to hold sailors. It’s already picked America’s pocket.