DUBAI/WASHINGTON –– Iran released ten American sailors today after holding them overnight, bringing a swift end to an incident that had rattled nerves days ahead of the expected implementation of a landmark nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it had freed the sailors after determining they had entered Iranian territorial waters by mistake. The sailors had been detained aboard two US Navy patrol boats in the Gulf yesterday.
“Our technical investigations showed the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters inadvertently,” the IRGC said in a statement carried by state television. “They were released in international waters after they apologized,” it added.
IRGC Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi had earlier said that the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters due to a broken navigation system.
America’s Vice President Joe Biden rejected reports that Washington had offered Iran an apology over the incident.
“No, there was no apology, nothing to apologize for . . . and there’s no looking for any apology,” Biden said on CBS’s This Morning programme.
The Pentagon said there were no indications the sailors were harmed while in Iranian custody.
A carefully worded statement did not explain how the sailors and their two riverine command boats ended up being detained by Iran, saying only that “the Navy will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors’ presence in Iran”.
The sailors were later taken ashore by US Navy aircraft, while other sailors took charge of the boats and headed toward Bahrain, their original destination.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said he was pleased the sailors had been freed and appreciated “the timely way in which this situation was resolved”.
He added: “I want to personally thank Secretary of State John Kerry for his diplomatic engagement with Iran to secure our sailors’ swift return.”
Kerry thanked Iran for its cooperation in the release of the sailors.
“I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago, and the fact that today this kind of issue can be resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong,” Kerry said.
Kerry spoke to Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif several times as the United States sought to win the release of the sailors, an American official said.
Zarif said on twitter that he was “happy to see dialogue and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors episode”.
Iranian state television released footage of the arrest, showing the sailors as they knelt down with hands behind their heads and their two vessels being surrounded by several IRGC fast boats.
The video showed weapons and ammunition confiscated from the sailors, who were seen eating food provided by
the Iranians. There were also images of American passports being inspected.
The incident raised tensions between Iran and the United States, which, along with other world powers, reached a deal last year under which Iran will curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Some conservatives in both countries, enemies since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, have criticized the deal that is due to be implemented in the coming days.