By releasing the Iranians jailed in Iraq, Obama has sent a gentle signal to Iran that the U.S. is interested in doing business. Will this tiny step become the beginning of a pattern, reversing years of American hostility?
In a very low key signal of Washington's desire to pursue accommodation with Iran, five Iranians arrested by American occupation forces in Iraq were released to the Iraqi government. This removes one small irritant on Iran's long list of grievances against the U.S. and thus sends the message that Washington is not trying to make matters worse. This is exactly the type of signal I have repeatedly advocated.
No one should imagine that it will have much impact on the Iranian "neo-con" war generation, but it serves both to calm the waters a bit and to provide evidence to those Iranians who might wish to make the case for international moderation. One can imagine a Rafsanjani or Khatami or Moussavi citing this to Qom clerics worried about the legitimacy of their Islamic Republic but also concerned about the U.S./Israeli threat, saying, "You see, the Americans do understand something other than the language of force!"
Since the extremist input to Iranian relations with the outside world is coming primarily from Israeli hawks and their U.S. supporters, however, perhaps the major significance of this small concession is that it establishes a U.S. precedent for shifting away from a policy of threat toward a policy of accommodation. Previously, the Obama effort in this direction had been essentially nothing but hot air. Now that a bit of substance has been added, as long as the sky does not fall, this precedent may strengthen the hands of pragmatists in highly factionalized Washington.
The release of the Iranians represents only one tiny conciliatory countermove after years of antagonistic U.S. behavior. Perhaps the most outrageous single American action was (whether you believe it to be astonishing carelessness or intentional) the shooting down of an Iranian airliner full of people during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Apologizing for that would attract Iranian attention.