Iran releases detained U.S. Navy sailors
It turned out to be the international crisis that wasn’t.
Less than a day after 10 U.S. Navy sailors were detained in Iran when their boats drifted into Iranian waters, they and their vessels were back safely Wednesday with the American fleet.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tapped the personal relationship he has formed with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in the three years of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, speaking with him at least five times by telephone. Kerry credited the quick resolution to the “critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country secure and strong.”
U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter thanked Kerry after the sailors’ release and couched the incident in humanitarian terms, noting that “the U.S. Navy routinely provides assistance to foreign sailors in distress.”
For Tehran, the Americans’ swift release was a way to neutralize a potential new flashpoint days before it was expected to meet the terms of last summer’s nuclear deal, which will give Iran significant relief from painful economic sanctions.
It is likely that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state, would have had to approve the release, given the immense political sensitivities.
But the rapid resolution also was a victory for moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who has promoted greater openness with the outside world despite strident opposition from deeply entrenched hard-liners at home.
“Rouhani’s policy of interaction is working,” said Iranian political analyst Saeed Leilaz. “Iran and the U.S. have gone a long way in reducing tensions but still have a long way to go in improving their contacts. It was a big step forward.”
The nine men and one woman were detained Tuesday after at least one of their boats suffered mechanical problems off of Farsi Island, an outpost in the middle of the Persian Gulf that has been used as a base for Revolutionary Guard speedboats since the 1980s.
The Americans’ small Riverine boats were sailing between Kuwait and Bahrain on a training mission when the U.S. lost contact.
The sailors left the island at early Wednesday aboard their boats, the Navy said. They were picked up by Navy aircraft, and other sailors took control of the vessels for the return voyage to Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based.
Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said the priority now would be determining “how exactly these sailors found themselves in Iran.”
The Revolutionary Guard released images of the U.S. sailors before their release, showing them sitting on the floor of a room. They looked mostly bored or annoyed, although one appeared to be smiling. The woman had her hair covered by a brown cloth. The pictures also showed what appeared to be their two boats.
“After determining that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was not intentional, and their apology, the detained American sailors were released in international waters,” the Guard said.
A still from video shows American Navy sailors detained Tuesday by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf. The sailors were released Wednesday.