Iran on Wednesday freed a group of sailors from two small American naval vessels that Tehran claimed strayed into Iranian waters, prompting their seizure and overnight detention.
The release appeared to end a potential flash point as Iran and world powers move toward the possible next steps in a landmark nuclear deal that limits Tehran’s atomic program in exchange for the easing of international economic sanctions.
The detention also added to tensions in the Persian Gulf region amid the worst diplomatic unraveling in decades between Shiite power Iran and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. The feud — opened by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric earlier this month — has put Washington in the middle as it seeks to implement the nuclear deal and also back its key regional partner, Saudi Arabia.
“Ten U.S. Navy Sailors safely returned to U.S. custody today, after departing Iran,” said a statement early Wednesday from U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. “There are no indications that the Sailors were harmed during their brief detention.”
According to the Navy’s statement, the sailors departed Farsi Island, where they were held, at 8:43 GMT (3:43 a.m. EST). They were transferred ashore by U.S. Navy aircraft, while other sailors took charge of the vessels, called riverine command boats, and continued on the way to Bahrain, the vessels’ original destination and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
According to the statement, the Navy will investigate “the circumstances that led to” the sailors’ “presence in Iran.”
Iranian and U.S. ships often come with hailing distance in the Gulf during patrols and maneuvers. The Gulf is also the route for more than one-fifth of the world’s oil tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, which is jointing controlled by Iran and Western-ally Oman.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in a statement, expressed his “gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in quickly resolving this matter. … That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
Iran’s Fars News Agency first reported the release, quoting a statement from Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard that said Iran “has released the U.S. marines and their vessels in international waters after its investigations showed that they had gone astray during their voyage in the Persian Gulf. In its statement, the Guard pointed out that its investigations show that the U.S. combat [vessels’] illegal entry into Iranian water was not the result of a purposeful act.”
The quick moves by the Revolutionary Guard also suggested that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sought to keep the detention from overshadowing regional affairs, including the nuclear deal.
There appeared to be a bit of equivocation from Iran earlier Wednesday, however, with Iranian officials saying that talk of an imminent release was “speculation.” An Iranian Revolutionary Guard spokesman, Gen. Ramezan Sharif, indicated that Iran’s next move and its timing will be determined by an investigation.
Later, though, Iranian officials said they had determined that malfunctioning navigation devices were responsible for what they called an “intrusion.”
“It became clear that the US combat vessels’ illegal entry into the Islamic Republic of Iran’s waters was the result of an unpurpuseful [sic] action and a mistake,” the statement said, “and after they extended an apology, the decision was made to release them.”
“The Americans have undertaken not to repeat such mistakes,” it added, and continued: “The captured marines were released in international waters under the supervision of the IRGC Navy.”
Iran released several photos purportedly of the crew members, sitting around looking bored.
The exact circumstances surrounding the incident, which comes at a volatile moment in U.S.-Iran relations, remained unclear.
The two small boats, used largely on coastal waters and on rivers, had been en route from Kuwait to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf when they disappeared from the Navy’s scopes. Senior administration officials said the vessels appeared to have experienced mechanical trouble or ran out of fuel, but Fars said the sailors had been “snooping.”
The Iranian military took the boats and their crews to Farsi Island, where Iran maintains a naval base in the gulf.
The run-in, which in the United States drew calls for reprisal from Republican lawmakers and candidates, comes at a sensitive time in the tumultuous relationship with Iran. Economic sanctions against Iran could be lifted as soon as this month, under a landmark deal aimed at preventing Tehran from building a nuclear weapon.
A senior defense official said of Tuesday’s incident that there was no indication of hostile intent and that the U.S. crews were being treated well. “In some ways this has been very professional,” the official said.
“We have received assurances from the Iranians that our sailors are safe and that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on CNN.
A senior administration official said Tuesday that, after communications between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the State Department believed the situation had been resolved.
Kerry “made the case very strongly” to Zarif that the incident had stemmed from a mechanical problem aboard one of the boats and that they appeared to have drifted into Iranian territorial waters. Small U.S. naval craft frequently patrol the Persian Gulf just beyond Iran’s territorial control.
Zarif asked for more information about the incident, which the State Department later communicated to Iran. Zarif, the official said, “came back and said they were all safe and sound, that nobody was hurt,” and that Iran would “return them promptly.”
“We’re expecting them some time around sunup” Iranian time, the official said.
A U.S. defense official said he expected U.S. personnel would be “taken out to international waters by the Iranian Coast Guard and turned over to a U.S. ship.”
Another official, noting Iranian media reports that the sailors had been “arrested,” acknowledged that there is more than one power center in Iran but expressed cautious optimism that the sailors would quickly be released.
The incident marks the latest run-in between Iranian and U.S. crews. In December, Iranian gunboats fired unguided missiles about 1,000 yards from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
A U.S. defense official said the small boats were believed to have been within 12 nautical miles of Iran on Tuesday when they broke down. Many officials stressed, though, that it is unclear exactly what happened.
The vessels are agile and often carry Special Operations forces into smaller bodies of water.
The U.S. government has been in communication with Iranian authorities, according to a senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.
“We have received assurances the sailors will promptly be allowed to continue their journey,” the official said.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was updated throughout the afternoon about the incident and spoke with Kerry and national security adviser Susan E. Rice.
In recent weeks, U.S. lawmakers have called for increased sanctions on Iran after the country tested two ballistic missiles in recent months. Since the tests, President Hassan Rouhani vowed to expand the country’s ballistic missile program.
Even though details about the incident were sparse, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate, had quickly weighed in, accusing President Obama of having a “humiliatingly weak Iran policy.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who opposed the nuclear deal, said on CNN that “this kind of openly hostile action is not surprising. It’s exactly what I and so many others predicted when President Obama was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran — that it would embolden their aggression towards the United States and our allies in the region.”
In 2007, Iran held 15 British Royal Navy personnel for nearly two weeks. Iran claimed the ship entered its territorial waters off the Iran-Iraq coast. Britain said the vessel never left seas under Iraqi control.
Carol Morello, Brian Murphy and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.