First, Washington's response to the incident testifies to the fact that Obama and his administration will not allow anything to get in the way of implementing the nuclear deal with Iran. The agreement is in a few days supposed to reach a critical point when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announces that Iran has met all the basic conditions placed by the other partners in the agreement, thus permitting the removal of sanctions that the West put in place when Iran refused to stop enriching uranium and progressing towards a nuclear bomb.
Nothing could serve the national Iranian interest better than the removal of sanctions, which little oil the country can sell has reached an unprecedented low price.
Iran needs sanctions removal like people need oxygen, and it's reasonable to assume that it will not do anything to sabotage implementation of the agreement and relations with the Americans, who are the leading power in moves to remove the sanctions. But Obama's United States behaves as though it is the one who needs the sanctions to be removed, not Iran.
Fact: About two weeks ago the Iranians tested ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The ban on holding such tests is part of the UN Security Council's decision that validated the nuclear agreement, but Iran doesn't care about the UN and the world powers. Not only did it carry out the test, it also showed off an underground site to store and fire long-range ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.
This was a violation – even if not blatant – of the UN's decision. The Obama administration has already prepared a list of sanctions, but the president himself instructed the National Security Council, the Defense Department and the Pentagon to halt the process lest, God forbid, something happen to the nuclear agreement. This in itself is not a good sign for us, as it means the US will ignore violations of the Iranian nuclear agreement if they are not too over-the-top.
An intra-Iranian struggle
Back to the incident in the Persian Gulf. In about three weeks, another significant event is to occur: elections in the Iranian parliament. It will then become clear if the moderate, pragmatic camp led by President Rouhani can gain strength, or if the conservative, radical camp led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards emerges victorious.
The camp led by Khamenei and the Guards see the nuclear agreement as an American plot to collapse the ayatollah regime from within via penetration of Western culture and increased influence of American culture, whose values are opposed to the Islamic Revolution's values. Khamenei sees the nuclear agreement as an insidious step and an obvious Western scheme that must be foiled.
The Revolutionary Guards don't want President Rouhani to deprive them of their monopoly over the Iranian economy. When Iran opens up to the world, and particularly to the West, private and foreign entrepreneurs will be able to do what is currently controlled by the Guards.
Therefore, both Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards will do anything to show the Americans that Iran was never and will never be in their pocket, but rather that it is the enemy of all the United States represents and of patronizing Christian culture.
On the other hand, they want the removal of sanctions, because a deterioration of the economic situation in Iran could endanger their rule. They will hence not interfere with President Rouhani's and Foreign Minister Zarif's charm offensive, but will also not miss any opportunity to humiliate the Americans and show them that Iran has not given in to them and that the nuclear agreement is only a necessity they are forced to recognize for a set period of time.
Apology or half apology
All this was reflected in the incident involving the sailors and how it concluded. Those who stopped the American patrol boats were small, speedy boats belonging to the Revolutionary Guards. They did not miss the opportunity to photograph the American sailors in humiliating positions of surrender, and some demanded an apology from the United States as a condition for their release.
In contrast, Foreign Minister Zarif was all sweet talk when his US counterpart John Kerry called him and asked him to release the sailors immediately. Kerry, who did his military service in Vietnam as an officer on a patrol boat similar to the one captured by the Iranians, is apparently well-aware of what occurred, but he admitted the American boats penetrated Iranian territorial waters. Such a statement is a kind of apology and an admission of guilt on the part of the United States.
In this way, Kerry hoped, everyone would come out satisfied, but it was the Revolutionary Guards who got the last word. Their hatred for Americans and Rouhani outweighed any other considerations. They distributed the video of the humiliated American sailors and their captors treating them humanely and in this manner they killed two birds with one video clip regarding international opinion.
In the end the Revolutionary Guards released the Americans without receiving a formal apology, and it can be assumed that the motive for this was the recent burning of the Saudi embassy, which raised the ire of the Sunni Muslim world and part of the West.
Iran knows how to play the two-faced game which it uses to deceive the international community and especially the United States.
Even the timing was important. The incident took place ahead of Obama's State of the Union address – the last one before the next presidential election – in which he spoke of the nuclear deal with Iran as one of the main achievements of his presidency.
Donald Trump, the fiery and uncouth nominee for the Republicans' presidential candidate, was quick to grasp the opportunity and presented the incident in the Persian Gulf as proof of the Obama administration's weakness in the international arena.
For us, what happened yesterday, especially the way the current ruling Iranian regime provoked the Americans through video images, should be deeply concerning.