published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Public threats, private meaning

Sometimes you have to look beyond public acts and fiery rhetoric to gain an understanding of the nuanced relationships that govern international diplomacy. The shouting match and saber-rattling that currently passes for conversation between the United States and Iran is an example.

Publicly, the relationship appears to be bad and growing worse. The United States continues to press for more rigorous sanctions against Iran. It's part of a broad international effort to convince that nation to end what is widely viewed as a nuclear weapons development program. That, unsurprisingly, has prompted vitriolic responses from Iranian leaders.

Iran threatened to shut down the flow of oil through the vital Strait of Hormuz and pledged to take any necessary action to protect the nation's strategic and economic interests. Then it test-fired a missile. The latter, of course, was a reminder that Iran could wreak havoc in the region if it chose to do so.

The threats and provocative acts suggest that the U.S.-Iran relationship either has broken down or is so near collapse that nothing can save it. While the situation is hardly ideal, the behind-the-scenes dialogue seems to retain a reasonable equilibrium despite outward appearances.

Two rescues by the U.S. military in the last week make the case that U.S.-Iran ties endure.

Tuesday, the Monomoy, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the Persian Gulf, rescued six Iranians from a ship that was "not seaworthy." The Iranians later were transferred to an Iranian coast guard ship.

Last week, the U.S. Navy came to the rescue of an Iranian fishing crew that had been held captive by Somali pirates for over a month. The rescue in the northern Arabian Sea by forces attached to the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group was accomplished without incident and the rescued men were returned to Iranian authorities. The pirates remain in U.S. custody.

The rescues, a military spokesman says, are not unusual. U.S. forces "routinely rescue sailors in distress -- regardless of nationality ..." It is interesting to note, however, that the rescues come not long after the Iranian government told the United States that the Stennis, on its way to Afghanistan at the time of the rescue, was not welcome to return to the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon rejected the warning, adding that the United States also would resist any attempt to close the Strait.

Iran's public posturing continues, but its more private conversation is less confrontational. Ranking Iranian officials said the first rescue was an appreciated "humanitarian gesture." The captain of the Iranian coast guard vessel sent "regards and thanks" to the Monomoy for "assisting and taking care of the Iranian sailors." Perhaps the more private messages are simply diplomatic protocol. Perhaps not. They could convey a message.

It's possible that the desire to resolve differences without open conflict still is viable in some quarters in Iran. If that's the case, those factions should be encouraged even as the United States and others hold firm in the resolve to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

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