To the relief of family, friends, and U.S. negotiators, Iran has released the container ship Maersk Tigris and its 24-person crew, announcing today that the ship had left its territorial waters. The BBC:
Permission for the release of the ship was given after the Iranian authorities received guarantees “for the enforcement of the judicial decision”, the country’s Ports and Shipping Organisation said.
Rickmers [Shipmanagement] said in a statement that Maersk had “put up a security in relation to the underlying court case”.
It’s not clear, however, exactly how much quid pro quo backroom dealing between the United States and Iran went on in parallel with the negotiations over payments. The New York Times:
In Washington, Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Navy warships that had been assigned to escort American and British vessels through the strait, a precaution after the seizure of the Maersk Tigris, which is registered in the Marshall Islands, were no longer doing so.
The apparent stand-down in the strait, where American and Iranian forces once battled each other in the 1980s, appeared to reflect efforts by both sides not to allow any show of military bravado to complicate and possibly sabotage multilateral diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement on Iran’s contentious nuclear program.
While it’s good that this standoff was resolved diplomatically and without the loss of life, what’s critical is how this episode was read in Iran. If the leadership in Tehran, caught flat-footed by some rogue Revolutionary Guard elements who acted on their own initiative on the Tigris, was looking for a way out of the mess, then this may all have played out more or less as the Times is framing it—as a mutual climb-down. But if instead the White House offered to stand down in exchange for the release of the Tigris, as part of a broader de-escalation in pursuit of a positive sum nuclear deal—well, let’s just say that a few interesting weeks are likely ahead of us, both in the ongoing negotiations, as well as the simmering regional crises in Yemen, Syria and Iraq where Iran is more than capable of stirring the pot.