The Underlying Messages of the US-Iran Naval Incident

by Shireen Hunter  

When news broke that the naval branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had captured 10 US naval personnel whose boat had drifted into the territorial waters of the Iranian island of Farsi, it first appeared that Iran’s hardliners were attempting to scuttle the implementation of the recently concluded nuclear deal and thus prevent any further improvement in US-Iran relations. However, the Iranian authorities soon released the captured sailors. The commander of the IRGC’s naval branch declared that the Iranian authorities had ascertained that the US personnel had entered Iranian waters by mistake and had no ill intent. Meanwhile, the US government also reacted to the news of the capture of its naval personnel calmly, without interpreting it as another sign of Iran’s mischief-making or proof of the belligerence and irrationality of the IRGC. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry contacted his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, and the two used diplomacy to resolve the conflict quickly.

The swift release of American naval personnel and the calm and mature way both governments behaved contrasted sharply with with a similar incident that occurred in 2007 during which 15 British naval personnel, whose boat had drifted into Iran’s territorial waters in the Arvand Rud (Shatt al-Arab), were held for 13 days. At that time, the detainees were released only after much posturing by both sides.

So, what does the incident and the way it was handled reveal about Iran’s internal politics as well as the current administration’s approach towards Iran?

One explanation for the IRGC’s action is that the IRGC feels that the more conciliatory policies of the Rouhani administration have decreased its power. Therefore, it wanted to show the importance of its role in defending Iran’s sovereignty at sea and thus protecting its security. The IRGC leaders in their statements certainly emphasized this point. By so doing they also hoped to remind everyone that they cannot be ignored by civilian leaders.

However, both the tone and the behavior of the IRGC was quite mild, at least according to the institution’s usual standards. It insisted on treating the US personnel with respect and housing them in a comfortable and safe place. Such behavior shows that the IRGC is not foolish enough to court a potential US military response to the capture and abuse of its personnel. Although rhetorically belligerent, the IRGC is not irrational and foolhardy in its actions. Moreover, the treatment of the sailors shows that Iran’s current priorities are the successful and timely implementation of the nuclear deal and the pursuit of a more conciliatory foreign policy across the board. This foreign policy has become necessary partly, but not entirely, because of Iran’s economic and financial needs and the lack of any appetite among the Iranian public for conflict in general but especially with a power such as the United States.

Under these circumstances, the IRGC cannot afford to be seen as standing in the way of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the dashing of any hopes for a better economic future for the country. Even the IRGC needs some measure of public favor to be able to retain its dominant economic and political position in the country. This episode also shows that, at the moment, the Supreme Leader is also committed to ensure the implementation of the JPCOA and the revival of the Iranian economy. He, too, is aware that Iran’s economic and other problems risk undermining the Islamic system and further eroding its support base, and thus he wants to find solutions to these problems.

The successfully negotiated resolution of the incident also shows the determination of the Obama administration to make a success of the Iran nuclear deal—despite continuing opposition by hardline American circles and politicians—and to use it to improve bilateral relations. As also noted by other commentators, it demonstrates the importance of establishing channels of diplomatic communication even in the absence of formal relations. It is also proof of the benefits of engaging with Iran. Without the efforts of President Obama, Secretary Kerry, President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif, which led to the JPCOA, the countries would not have had the incentive to deescalate and resolve emerging crises. Nor would have they established the personal relationships, such as that between Zarif and Kerry, that clearly helped in the timely resolution of the case of the captured sailors.

But the main lesson of this episode in US-Iran relations is that the two countries can work together effectively and a civil manner when they have mutual interests and the proper channels of communications. Now it is incumbent on both countries to extend this civility and rational behavior to other aspects of their dealings together, whether direct or indirect, and build on it to forge more constructive relations in the future.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Quick, sensible resolution of the problem. How very refreshing.

  2. I support the arguments of the article. I want to observe that the mechanical details of the incident are almost beyond belief.

    The two riverine command vessels were cruising from Kuwait to Bahrain, and a direct course would go down the Saudi coast. These vessels and their hull design were not designed for open water operations and rougher conditions. Each craft had satellite navigation gear, and one or probably multiple radios, and a limited cruising range, requiring a refueling at sea. Seems that the crafts’ deviation was only known by the Navy when they did not arrive at the rendezvous with the refueling vessel.

    How would two craft, sailing towards Bahrain with the Saudi coast off to your right, then veer off to the left and cruise for hours away out of sight of the coast? You do not need operating navigational gear, only common sense, and perhaps a map. Multiple failures of the gear beggars belief. The major Revolutionary Guards base on Farsi might have 100 “fast boats”, with speeds of 40 to 63 knots.

    To me the most likely explanation would be a deliberate act, perhaps with a political motive.

    Interesting contrast to the Syrian incident, where a Russian Sukhoi-24M was shot down in Syrian airspace after venturing into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds; or the incident where Israeli forces attacked a totally unarmed Turkish vessel about 90 miles off Gaza, well outside the self-proclaimed exclusion zone of 60 miles, killing 9 Turks and a Turkish-American, while captured Israeli commandos were protected from harm during the incident.

    (Editor: The last paragraph might well be left off.)

  3. It is ironic. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public insults of President Obama last Fall gave the Administration lots of leeway to engage in rational and civilized discourse with the Government of Iran.

  4. There may also be a measure of comfort/confidence on the part of the Iranians. Having been taken seriously throughout the JCPOA negotiations as an equal partner, they (at least for now) felt no need to bluster or bully while dealing with what ought to be a routine diplomatic engagement with another country – even one whose forces are a long way from home in what is (within reason) considered by Iran to be their backyard.

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