Iran’s swift release of the 10 US sailors detained after they strayed into Iranian territory caught many political activists and commentators by surprise - Dr Sadeq Zibakalam was one of them. In an interview with IranWire a few hours before the release of the US Navy personnel, he had predicted that the Revolutionary Guards would delay their release for as long as possible. We talked to him about the surprise move and what it meant for US-Iran relations.
When we last spoke to you, you predicted that the Revolutionary Guards would delay the release of the sailors for as long as it could. In your opinion, why did they release them so soon?
To be honest with you, many were astonished by the speedy release of the US sailors. We know there are many people who hoped to benefit from this detention. They could’ve demanded an apology from the Americans or said that "the Pentagon must apologize" and use this…There were also people in the United States who didn’t want the sailors to be released this fast.
I think a few factors led to their quick release. First, there was direct contact between Washington and Tehran. We mustn’t forget that Iran and the US cut ties after 4 November 1979. Even the simplest contact between the two countries, which was sometimes necessary, was until recently carried out by a third party country like Turkey or Oman. This is the first time in 37 years that direct contact was established between the two countries.
The second reason was the establishment of a respectful and close relationship between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Mohammad Zarif and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State over the past two years. It seems as though they had several talks behind closed doors during this period, which led to mutual trust between them.
If the release of the sailors had taken a long time, and if hardliners in Iran felt that there was no hurry in releasing them, then the two-year effort to reach a nuclear deal would have been lost — or at least its implementation would’ve been postponed. And the Iranian government was well aware of the pressure Republicans were placing on President Obama. So it took the necessary action to release the sailors, before hardliners in both Iran and the US could take advantage of the situation. Iran resolved the matter before it turned into a crisis.
How could Iran’s hardliners have turned the matter into a crisis?
It would have been enough if an imam had said, "We cannot release the sailors until America apologizes" during Friday prayers, or if Kayhan had published an editorial saying the same. If any one of Iran’s hardliners had said that the US President should apologize in a written letter, no one in Iran would have said that was nonsense! In fact, many people would have supported this statement, shouting out “Allahu-Akbar!” and "Death to America”! This could have helped turn this into a crisis — and neither the government or any other institution could have resolved it.
The current government doesn’t have a warm relationship with the Revolutionary Guards, but the Guards have acted according to the government's directives…
I think the Supreme National Security Council, which had a great role in this matter, wanted to release the sailors. And even more important than the government and the national security council were the views of the Supreme Leader, who also wanted them to be released quickly. He must have reacted quickly, managing to put out the fire before the hardliners reacted.
What do think about the footage of the detained sailors?
Hardliners will take advantage of these photographs as much as they can, both from inside the Revolutionary Guards and out. They’d love to say that the Navy personnel were so frightened that they begged, or that Mr Obama begged them to release them, or that he had apologized in secret. Such interpretations and comments may well be found throughout the media in the coming days, because they’re very keen to present the Americans as weak.