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What’s at stake for Iran in releasing detained U.S. sailors

January 13, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT
An undated picture released by Iran's Revolutionary Guard website shows American sailors sitting in an unknown place in Iran. via Reuters

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to our top story: the release of 10 U.S. Navy sailors from detention by Iran in the Persian Gulf.

We begin with chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: The first look at what happened came on Iranian state TV. This video shows the moment Tuesday that Revolutionary Guard troops boarded the two U.S. Navy boats and detained their crews, nine men and one woman. They were held overnight on Farsi Island in the Gulf, before an Iranian admiral announced they’d been released.

REAR ADM. ALI FADAVI, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (through interpreter): Our final finding was that it has not been a hostile crossover meant for espionage or the like. They reached the area due to a malfunction of their navigation systems, acknowledging the matter as being inadvertent and unintentional due.

MARGARET WARNER: In a separate statement, the Revolutionary Guard said the sailors had apologized. That claim set off a back and forth, first a denial from Vice President Joe Biden on “CBS This Morning”:

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: No, there was no apology. There’s nothing to apologize for. When you have a problem with the boat, you apologize the boat had a problem? No, and there was no looking for any apology.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran then responded with a video showing one of the sailors saying this:

MAN: It was a mistake that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake.

MARGARET WARNER: Still later, the White House followed up, saying there was no formal apology.

All this comes at a critical moment. Iran is soon expected to meet the terms of the nuclear deal with the U.S. and other nations, ending years of crippling sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry said today the relationships built in the nuclear talks laid the groundwork for resolving this quickly.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: This kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved and efficiently resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our safe, secure and strong.

MARGARET WARNER: Brookings Institution Middle East expert Bruce Riedel says Tehran had a big incentive to make the incident go away.

BRUCE RIEDEL, Brookings Institution: I think the Iranian leadership, the minute they learned what had happened, recognized that this was something they wanted to get behind them as fast as possible. Americans remember well what happens to Americans held in detention in Iran. And at this critical moment, when Iran hopes to get out from under sanctions, anything that could threaten that had to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: But Republican presidential candidates were highly critical of the administration’s handling of the boats’ seizure.

Senator Marco Rubio on a campaign stop in South Carolina:

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: I don’t know if you saw these images. They are really horrifying and they really made me really angry this morning to see, American sailors on their knees, hands behind their heads, a female sailor forced to wear a head scarf, penned up in a jail cell. You know why these things happen? Because they know they can get away with it when Barack Obama is in office.

MARGARET WARNER: Amid the political and diplomatic fallout, the U.S. Navy says it will investigate exactly how the boats came to be seized.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on this, I’m joined now by Robin Wright. She’s an analyst and fellow at both the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She also writes for “The New Yorker” magazine.

Robin Wright, good to see you.

ROBIN WRIGHT, The New Yorker: Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what is the best understanding of what really happened here?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think it was an accident that the U.S., the two little boats sailed into an island which is smack in the middle of the Persian Gulf, which is already a narrow waterway. It’s only 35 miles wide at one point. And so they strayed into the waters, they got caught, and it was a matter of 24 hours to resolve it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re confident it was just an accident? Because there is now going to be a Navy investigation. We heard that sailor apologize.

If it was a mechanical problem, some are saying, why would he apologize? And you heard that’s what the vice president said.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I suspect a lot of those — the 10 sailors didn’t know exactly what was going to transpire in 24 hours and were making a statement that they didn’t mean to stray into the 12 miles around Iranian territory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think, Robin Wright, the Iranians dealt with this so quickly and released these sailors?

ROBIN WRIGHT: There is an enormous amount at stake in the next few days. The implementation of the Iran nuclear deal is expected this weekend, or by Tuesday at the latest, and this is the moment that Iran, after four decades of being a pariah in the international community, begins to be embraced again.

It can do business. Some of the sanctions by the European Union and other countries will be lifted. It’s the beginning of a different era. And at the same time, Iran goes to the polls next week. We have an election. This issue of the U.S. sailors in the Iranian waters has been politicized in our election season and it is — it’s going to be in the Iranian season as well. A lot is at stake in Iran’s election next month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If the Iranian leadership wants this nuclear deal to go forward and they didn’t want any interference, then why were these sailors picked up?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think they did stray into Iranian waters. There is a 12-mile limit. And if they got — they were in that area.

There is tension, longstanding tension in the Persian Gulf between the Americans and the Iranians. This goes back to 1987, when the U.S. opened fire on an Iranian ship, killed 22 soldiers and sunk the ship. In 2007, there was a confrontation with the British as well, when 15 soldiers were picked up because they strayed into Iranian waters, or that was the allegation, and they were held for two weeks.

So there’s a long — the Persian Gulf is a longstanding area of potential showdown among not just the United States, but also other Western powers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do we think this plays into the fact that we know there is a divide in the Iranian leadership between the conservatives, who are reluctant to see this opening to the West, and others, who are trying to make it happen?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, we have already seen the Iranian navy commander has come out and said, you know, this proves that Iran is the — you know, has the final say on anything that goes on in the Persian Gulf, and the — a lot of the newspapers are making hay of the fact that the Iranians picked up members of the mightiest military in the world.

So, they’re making — you know, the hard-liners are making hay of it here. Hard-liners are making hay of it in Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Separately, how is this deal going forward? Where does it stand? As you say, we’re at a critical moment, but there is much more to unfold with regard to this nuclear agreement.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, they’re technically expected in the next week at the latest to announce that implementation day, the formal moment when the U.N. announces that Iran is in compliance, that it has eliminated 98 percent of its enriched uranium, that it’s down to 1,000 centrifuges, that it’s dismantled its heavy water reactor in a city called Arak, that Iran is in compliance.

And that is the moment that the United States and the international community will begin to formally take those steps it promised in the lifting of sanctions. Now, for the U.S., a lot of sanctions will remain in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — but, otherwise, is everything on track for that to happen or not?

ROBIN WRIGHT: The United States has been very surprised by how fast this has played out. They didn’t think the Iranians could dismantle their program this quickly.

And so I think that it’s — there is actually some excitement in the halls of power that this very tricky issue that has built to a near war may be resolved peacefully, at least for a while.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a big payoff for Iran in getting that sanction — getting the sanctions lifted and getting what they see as their money back.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Right, they get roughly $100 billion back. Not all of that will actually get back because they have several financial obligations. It will be probably more somewhere around $50 billion or $60 billion, but they will have that to try to build their economy again.

Their economy is in very deep trouble because of the lowering price of oil, because of sanctions, but most of all because of their own mismanagement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robin Wright, thank you very much.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.