This week is not looking kind to opponents of the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran. On Wednesday, Iran freed 10 U.S. sailors less than 24 hours after their two U.S. ships entered Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. This comes just days before the Iran nuclear deal is set to take effect, easing sanctions and freeing up billions in frozen Iranian money. Is this a new era for U.S.-Iran ties? We are joined by Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, author of the forthcoming book, "Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Legacy of Diplomacy."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Between the quick release of 10 detained U.S. servicemembers and a nuclear deal set to take effect, this week is not looking kind to opponents of the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran. On Wednesday, Iran freed 10 U.S. sailors less than 24 hours after their two ships entered Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. initially blamed mechanical error but have now walked back that claim. The boats were able to leave Iran under their own power. Speaking to Iranian state television shortly before they were freed, a sailor said the crew made a mistake.
SAILOR: It was a mistake. That was our fault. And we apologize for our mistake. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a special problem?
SAILOR: We had no problems, sir.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, the sailor made that statement while still in Iranian custody. Whatever the reason for the crew’s entering Iranian waters, Iran said it’s accepted the U.S. explanation. Its quick cooperation came in stark contrast to a storm of panic and outrage among politicians, pundits and the corporate media. After the sailors were detained, Republican senator, presidential candidate Marco Rubio said Iran is, quote, "testing the boundaries of this administration’s resolve," while, later, front-runner Donald Trump posted on Twitter, quote, "We want our hostages back NOW!"—even though the sailors had by then been released. Some pundits accused Iran of acting, quote, "hostile," while others wondered if the U.S. and Iran were on the verge of a new hostage crisis. But speaking Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Iran for the sailors’ swift release and said the two countries’ recent diplomacy has paid off.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I also want to thank the Iranian authorities for their cooperation and quick response. These are always situations which, as everybody here knows, have an ability, if not properly guided, to get out of control. And I’m appreciative for the quick and appropriate response of the Iranian authorities. All indications suggest or tell us that our sailors were well taken care of, provided with blankets and food, and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today. And I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago. And in fact, it is clear that today this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved, and officially resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our countries safe, secure and strong.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, spoke by phone for hours to resolve the sailors’ detention. The quick resolution also stands in contrast to Iran’s detention of 15 British marines under similar circumstances in 2007. The arrests sparked a 13-day international standoff that saw heightened tensions between Iran and the West.
The U.S. incident comes just days before a landmark nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers is set to take effect. The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to report as early as Friday that Iran has met its initial obligations. That will potentially mean the lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of at least $50 billion in Iranian funds overseas cut off by Western governments.
AMY GOODMAN: Taken together, these two developments may signal a new era for U.S.-Iran relations, much to the chagrin of those who favor the path of hostility and war.
For more, we go to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, the author of the forthcoming Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Legacy of Diplomacy.
Trita, welcome back to Democracy Now!
TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: First of all, can you explain what actually happened? The U.S. immediately said, yes, they had entered Iranian waters, the two U.S. ships, they said, because of mechanical problems. But now they seem to be walking that back. Can you explain how it is these sailors ended up in Iranian custody?
TRITA PARSI: Well, we don’t know exactly, but what the sailors said in an interview with the Iranian TV was that they actually knew that they were entering Iranian waters—their instruments did indicate that—but they didn’t get out in time, I guess. But bottom line is, though, that it’s really fascinating that the U.S., from the very outset, made clear that they had gotten into Iranian waters by mistake. And this is a big difference between what happened this time around and what happened with the British sailors, because the British sailors denied that they had entered into Iranian waters, and later on, a British parliamentary inquiry actually established that the Iranian narrative actually was correct: They did—they had entered Iranian waters. And that thing took 13 days to resolve, and, thankfully, that was resolved peacefully, as well. But what we—
AMY GOODMAN: That was back in 2007.
TRITA PARSI: Correct. But what happened here is record time. I mean, they were not held for more than 16 hours. The fact that the critics of the administration think that they have anything to stand on to criticize is quite astonishing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Trita Parsi, could you also explain how the incident was resolved so quickly?
TRITA PARSI: Well, everything that has happened between the United States and Iran in the last 35 years have happened in the context of, A, almost no communication between the two sides and, B, almost no trust between the two sides. What happened this time around, though, is quite a different context. There is a little bit of a trust between the two sides, because of the nuclear deal and because of the diplomatic engagement that has taken place in the last two years, and, B, because there was intense communication. Zarif and Kerry spoke to each other five times during the 16-hour period to get this resolved. And the result is that it was resolved in record time. And it’s a clear indication that engagement works and that those who said that this nuclear deal would lead to Iran becoming more aggressive have a lot of egg on their face right now, because what we’ve seen is the opposite, that things actually got diffused very quickly.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, some Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for the nuclear deal in light of the incident. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump described the detention of the sailors as, quote, "an indication of where the hell we’re going." He was speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa.
DONALD TRUMP: You heard what happened: Iran took over two of our boats. They said they’re going to release them. Oh, isn’t that nice? They’re going to release them. This isn’t the same country. When I hear—that just happened. Just happened. It literally just happened, and I think it’s not so good. It’s just—it’s just an indication of where the hell we’re going. I mean, hopefully they get released, and fast, but it seems to be an indication of where we’re going. That Iran deal is the dumbest deal I think I’ve ever seen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Even after the sailors were released, Trump tweeted, quote, "Iran toys with U.S. days before we pay them, ridiculously, billions of dollars. Don’t release money. We want our hostages back NOW!" Trita Parsi, could you respond to the comments made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I think what we saw here is that the administration did not panic, and they did not enter into any bluster, and as a result, this issue was resolved peacefully within 16 hours. If the next president of the United States approaches these issues—and not just with Iran, but with other countries, as well—in the manner that some of the GOP candidates have said that they would, then most likely not only would the sailors not have been released this quickly, but potentially this would have escalated into an actual conflict.
When Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was leaving his post, he did a tour around the United States, and he was asked what is the thing that he’s most worried about. He said that one of the things he’s really worried about is that there would be some sort of an incident in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iran, an accident, but because of the lack of communication, there would be no ability to de-escalate matters, and the lack of communication, in and of itself, would lead to misjudgments and miscalculations, and a small incident would lead to a major escalation in the conflict.
Now we had communication, and instead of getting into that nightmare scenario that Mike Mullen was talking about, we got into the opposite. The issue was quickly defused and resolved. And it’s astonishing that the opponents of the administration think that they have something to criticize. I don’t think there’s ever been a situation of this kind in which it got resolved so quickly between two countries that otherwise still do not have particularly good relations.
AMY GOODMAN: MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who was formerly a conservative congressman, tweeted Tuesday, "Hey Iran, you have exactly 300 days left to push a US president around. Enjoy it while you can. After that, there will be hell to pay." If you could respond to that, Trita Parsi, and also talk about what is about to happen? The $50 billion in Iranian assets that have been seized will be unfrozen, often referred to, as you heard Trump saying, that we’re paying them this money.
TRITA PARSI: Well, as to Scarborough’s tweets, it goes back to the idea that by being tough and speaking with all this bluster, etc., we’re actually going to have an effective foreign policy. We did try that during the Bush years, and we saw exactly what happened with the Iranian nuclear program: It accelerated very, very quickly. During George Bush’s term, the Iranians went from 164 to 8,000 centrifuges. For the first time now, as a result of this deal, they’re cutting that back extensively. And they’re also giving up a lot of their low-enriched uranium, and they’re giving the international community much greater access into what’s happening in the program. That’s thanks to diplomacy, not thanks to bluster. That’s thanks to making compromises rather than just making threats. It’s easy to send out a tweet, but if you want to have a responsible foreign policy, it cannot be based on these type of principles, because we know exactly where that leads to. It leads to either no solution or actually a military confrontation.
As to the question of what will happen in the next couple of days, the assets that belong to Iran, that were frozen as part of the effort of the administration to put pressure on Iran, will be released. Whether it’s $50 billion or a little bit less, I’m not entirely sure. Whether it will be released in batches or all at the same time, I think—I’m not entirely clear on, either. But bottom line is, the Iranians are going to get some things in the next couple of days as a result of the fact that they have put cement into the core of the Iraq reactor, which means that they cannot use that reactor to produce plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapon. They have given unprecedented access to the International Atomic Energy Agency to make sure that their program is fully transparent. They have cut down their number of centrifuges almost two-thirds. They have given up almost the entire stockpile of LEU. As a result of all of these measures, some sanctions are going to be lifted on Iran, and some of Iran’s assets are going to be returned to Iran. That’s what diplomacy looks like. There has to be a compromise. Both sides have to give something. If we think that we can conduct foreign policy by just dictating to other countries exactly what they have to do, and never give anything from our own end, then we’re going to end up exactly with the same type of a foreign policy result that George Bush produced.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, before we conclude, I’d like to ask about Iran’s position in the region. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, marking its largest mass execution in decades. In response, protesters in the Iranian capital, Tehran, torched part of the Saudi Embassy. Saudi Arabia responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran. The Sunni-led nations of Bahrain and Sudan soon followed suit. The United Arab Emirates downgraded ties with Iran, while Kuwait recalled its ambassador there. Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia would also end air traffic and trade relations with Iran.
ADEL AL-JUBEIR: We decided to cut off all diplomatic relations with Iran. We will also be cutting off all air traffic to and from Iran. We will be cutting off all commercial relations with Iran, and we will have a travel ban against people traveling to Iran.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Trita Parsi, could you comment on the significance of this, the severing of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
TRITA PARSI: It is significant, and it’s very problematic, because as long as the Saudi-Iranian tensions increase and continue in the manner that they have, it’s going to be very difficult to get a peaceful solution to what’s happening in Syria right now, Yemen and elsewhere. The competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is having a destabilizing effect on the entire region, particularly where there already is conflict, so that’s a very big negative. The Iranians made a huge mistake—this was completely unacceptable—when they attacked the Saudi Embassy, and then they’re paying a price for it, because the Saudis have now a greater ability to try to isolate Iran in the region and get a lot of Arab countries and others to side with Saudi Arabia.
But what the real reason is behind the Saudi conduct, though, is that the Saudis are very worried about the potential for improved relations between the United States and Iran. They’re very worried that Iran will be able to be rehabilitated with the lifting of sanctions and improved political relations with Washington and Europe. And as a result, Iran will gain significant political influence and standing in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia. And much—
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, the significance of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, if you could? And also, was he beheaded? Did Saudi Arabia behead him, as they did many of those in that mass execution?
TRITA PARSI: As I understand it, he was not beheaded. But I think it’s quite clear that the Saudi government knew very well that if it executed Sheikh Nimr—and many countries, including Western countries, had pleaded with Saudi Arabia not to do this—they knew very well that it would spark some form of a crisis. And it does appear as if the Saudis wanted some form of a crisis, precisely in order to complicate matters in the region, particularly between the United States and Iran. There has been several attempts from the Saudi side to make sure that they create small crises in order to slow down or perhaps completely halt what seems to be a trend of improved U.S.-Iran relations, precisely because they’re fearful of that leading to greater—lesser significance for Saudi Arabia in the region and the United States having new options, not being so dependent on Saudi Arabia as it has been in the past decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Also on Friday, executives from 25 news organizations, including the Associated Press, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to press Iran to release the jailed Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. What is the latest on this, and why does Iran continue to hold him?
TRITA PARSI: What the Iranians are doing with not just Jason, but with many other Iranian Americans and others, is really unacceptable, and it’s a complete violation of the human rights of these individuals, who have not been able to have due access to lawyers and be able to actually even know what the sentence against them is or even what the charges against them are. And Jason is just one out of many examples in which the Iranian government are violating human rights. There seems to be some pretty extensive negotiations behind the scenes, however, right now to be able to get this issue resolved. We may see some outcome of this in the next couple of weeks. But the point is that Jason and many of these others should never have been arrested in the first place. But if they can be released soon, of course, that is the best thing that can happen, particularly for the families that have been suffering tremendously throughout all of this.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Trita Parsi, we thank you for being with us, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. His new book will be called Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Legacy of Diplomacy.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to the state of emergency, that is, the massive methane leak in California. Stay with us.