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After a long trek through Congress, The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) addressed the significant threat of a nuclear armed Iran. It did not address the litany of other abuses Iran commits domestically and abroad, from state sponsorship of terrorism to ballistic missile testing, and nor was it meant to. But curbing Iran’s nuclear program may not be diplomacy with Iran’s only benefit.
Yesterday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boarded two US naval vessels which they claimed had drifted into their territorial waters, and captured the 10 US sailors aboard. The incident excited considerable tension, especially in light of the JCPOA’s impending implementation — when the IAEA will verify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA, paving the way for sanctions relief. It also happened just hours before the State of the Union Address, in which Obama was expected to claim the deal as one of his signature accomplishments.
Prior to the State of the Union, Obama expressed confidence that the sailors would be safely returned, but the hawkish right didn’t share his optimism. The incident sent Iran deal opponents into apoplexy, with Senator Tom Cotton calling on Obama to nullify the deal if the sailors weren’t immediately released, and Presidential Candidate Marco Rubio repeating his promise to “repeal the Iran deal on day one.
Cotton and Rubio’s predictions that the incident would spiral out of control and spell the death knell for the Iran deal turned out to be false. Americans woke up this morning to news that, less than 24 hours after the sailors’ capture, they had been released.
It’s not a coincidence that this incident was resolved so quickly. In 2011 Bush’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen called for the establishment of a direct channel between the US and Iran, out of the concern that international incidents can lead to military escalations absent adequate communication. Today, Secretary Kerry noted that the speed of the sailors’ return was “a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.” So while the deal was intended to solve the nuclear program diplomatically, it also opened up additional lines of communication between the United States and Iran.
The return of the sailors doesn’t set everything right. Iran continues to hold American prisoners without charge, funds terror proxies across the Middle East, and routinely and egregiously violates its own citizens’ human rights. But the fact that there’s more work to be done in countering Iran’s bad actions doesn’t undermine the case for diplomacy. Despite claims to the contrary by the deal’s detractors, the foreign policy approach that produced the JCPOA is not “weakness.” It stopped an Iranian nuclear weapon and prevented another war in the Middle East. And today, it brought back 10 American servicemen and women in a process described by a senior defense official as “very professional.” This incident is just further evidence that we should continue advocating for a smart, strategic, and diplomacy-first vision for American leadership in the Middle East.