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The freakout over the U.S.-Iran boat drama looks a bit silly now

Iran has freed 10 U.S. sailors after detaining them on Jan. 12 and accusing the crew of having crossed into their territorial waters. Here is what you need to know about what led up to the sailors' detention. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Yesterday, just hours before President Obama delivered his last State of the Union address, some prominent figures on social media had a bit of a moment.

The cause was the apparent capture of two small U.S. naval vessels — riverine command boats, to be precise — by Iranian authorities. Pentagon and White House officials characterized the incident as "not a hostile act," indicated that the 10 sailors aboard the vessels would be released soon and eventually acknowledged that the boats had drifted into Iranian territorial waters. The detained American personnel were freed as promised in the morning.

It was a minor incident, barely a footnote in the long, troubled history between two long-standing foes. But in the hours before its denouement, conservative politicians and commentators, as well as the usual coterie of Iran hawks, sought desperately to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Opponents of the deal forged last year between Iran and world powers over Tehran's nuclear program figured that the boat incident was enough provocation to scupper many months of diplomatic negotiations and generally invoked it as a sign of White House fecklessness.

And others, such as this former British member of Parliament, didn't disguise their desire to bomb Iran.

To be sure, Iran has a lot to answer for regarding its unjust detention of foreigners, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has been in Iranian custody for more than 500 days.

But as PostEverything's Dan Drezner observes, the speed with which this potential flash point was resolved actually marked a departure from the past.

In 2007, 15 British marines were picked up in a similar context and detained for nearly two weeks before being returned. This time, the existing back channels with Tehran, a consequence of concerted diplomatic efforts in recent years, helped smooth over what could have been a far greater crisis.

"Compared to a similar incident in 2007, this was handled much more quickly and with a minimum of fuss,"  Drezner writes. "It’s almost as if U.S. diplomacy toward Iran has yielded some benefits or something."

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