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Analysis: What Iran's 'Fast' Release of U.S. Sailors Tells Us

American sailors detained by Iran were released after a night in Tehran's custody — a fast outcome following a frenzy of diplomacy but overall very little fuss.
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That was (relatively) quick.

Ten American sailors detained by Iran were released after a night in the Islamic republic's custody — a fast outcome following a frenzy of diplomacy but overall very little fuss.

There are at least two key takeaways from the quick resolution of what some feared could develop into an international incident. First, that both the Obama administration and Iranian government are keen to avoid jeopardizing a high-stakes nuclear deal agreed on last year.

"Clearly the United States and Iran now have a mutual interest in maintaining some kind of relationship that will keep this whole thing from being derailed," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who formerly served on the National Security Council. "They have every reason in the world to avoid a crisis. Neither the United States government wants it nor Iran wants it."

News that the sailors had been seized prompted an almost-immediate response from Republicans that the incident proved the deal — aimed at curtailing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling international sanctions — should be abandoned.

Higher up in the halls of power, there were signs that both Tehran and Washington wanted to tamp down the situation. That was partly to avoid an international incident, all-out war and protect a deal with benefits for both sides.

The Obama administration considers the nuclear deal a significant accomplishment and doesn't want anything to undermine it.

"That doesn't mean we're never going to have a problem with Iran again but it really does indicate that something has happened here"

"The U.S. most certainly does not need a confrontation with Iran right now even aside from protecting the nuclear deal," explained University of Maryland Professor and Brookings Institute senior fellow Shibley Telhami.

The Iranian government, meanwhile, wants to make sure it gets the billions of dollars in sanctions relief from a finalized nuclear deal.

As soon as the news broke, Secretary of State John Kerry put in a call to his Iranian counterpart. Iranian officials, after initially taking a hard stance, later publicly stressed the non-threatening nature of the incursion.

The situation could easily have turned into a crisis but "you’ve got to give them credit for handling it properly," Telhami said.

The whole episode bore similarities to an incident in 2007, albeit with a very different outcome.

Fifteen British servicemen were seized by Iranian forces in March of that year. They were held for 13 days — and released after a diplomatic crisis erupted.

By contrast, this week's incident was resolved in under 24 hours.

"That’s about as fast as it gets, given the history of these things," Sick said.

He said that's a testament to how much things have changed between Iran and the U.S.

The fact that Kerry was able to pick up the phone and call his counterpart, Zarif — five times over the course of the episode — "sort of speaks for itself," Sick said. "That couldn’t have happened two years ago. He wouldn’t have known what number to call and there would’ve been huge suspicion on the other end."

Therein lies the second, equally-important lesson from the averted crisis.

Both countries were "on their best behavior" to protect the sanctity of the deal — and a new era in relations, Sick explained.

Two years of negotiations between Iran and the West bore not just a landmark deal but something else: genuine relationships. U.S. and Iranian officials truly got to know each other, on a personal level, and grew comfortable speaking to each other.

Prior to the talks, American diplomats had no relationships with their counterparts in Tehran and mostly relied on other countries to relay messages.

"The ability to cut through all of that very quickly is something quite new," Sick said. "That doesn't mean we’re never going to have a problem with Iran again but it really does indicate that something has happened here."

Proof of that change — and special personal relationship — was evident in the statements issued by Kerry and Zarif after the sailors were released.

Their wording was similar and both praised the importance of diplomacy in securing a positive outcome.

"I want to express my gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter," Kerry said following the sailors' release. "That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays.”

“Happy to see dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the #sailors episode,” tweeted Zarif. “Let’s learn from this latest example.”

Still, it’s important not to overstate any warmth between the U.S. and Iran. When sailors in a broken boat can rattle nerves around the world, it's proof that sparks can still ignite a fire in a volatile region.