Iranian military forces are holding 10 American sailors and two small Navy boats that apparently strayed into Iranian waters, U.S. officials said Tuesday, but Tehran has pledged to release them shortly.
The Americans were on a training mission in the Persian Gulf when the riverine boats experienced “a navigational or mechanical difficulty” and appear to have drifted into Iranian waters, according to the Pentagon. Iranian coast guard boats brought the vessels to a Revolutionary Guard base on Farsi Island, officials said.
U.S. officials said they believe that the American vessels steered off course and that the crew was aided, not captured, by Iranian forces.
“There doesn’t seem to be anything malicious at work on either side,” according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing the internal assessment.
But Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s navy, said American vessels had been making “unprofessional air and sea maneuvers” in the area for a period of about 40 minutes.
Iranian officials said the U.S. personnel included nine men and one woman who had been “detained.” They said the two U.S. boats, each armed with .50-caliber guns, were seized after the vessels illegally entered nearly a mile inside Iran’s maritime boundary near Farsi Island.
“With timely measures taken by the [Iranian navy], this was foiled and 100% tranquility and peace was secured and control returned to the region,” Fadavi told the Fars news agency in Iran.
He said Iranian military officials were in contact with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who in turn was in communication with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who he said had called for the release of the sailors.
“Mr. Zarif had a strong and firm stance, and said: ‘They were in our
territorial waters and should apologize,’” Fadavi said. “This process has been done and definitely won’t take a long time.”
In a separate statement to the Tasmin news agency, Revolutionary Guard spokesman Gen. Ramzan Sharif said the U.S. service members were being questioned.
“If the dialogue is clear and indicates that their entrance into Iranian waters was to collect information, ... then officials will take necessary measures,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, if it appears that the Americans inadvertently ventured into Iranian territory, that will be taken into consideration. “They should be sure that our treatment of them will be based on Islamic compassion,” he said.
U.S. officials said Kerry had spoken by phone with Iranian officials in Tehran to gain their release. Ben Rhodes, a senior aide to President Obama, said earlier Tuesday that discussions were ongoing.
“We are working to resolve the situation so any U.S. personnel are returned to their normal deployment.... Hopefully, it will be resolved,” he said.
A Pentagon official said the Navy “lost contact” with the two craft as they transited from Kuwait to Bahrain.
“We subsequently have been in communication with Iranian authorities, who have informed us of the safety and well-being of our personnel,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We have received assurances the sailors will promptly be allowed to continue their journey.”
Farsi Island is home to gas and oil installations, in addition to the Revolutionary Guard base, and public access is restricted.
The island comes under the legal jurisdiction of mainland Bushehr province, which is also home to a nuclear power plant built with Russian assistance.
The unusual episode began to unfold just hours before Obama was set to deliver his final State of the Union address to Congress. It also came amid rising tensions in the region.
On Dec. 30, the White House notified Congress of its intentions to impose new sanctions on Iran for testing ballistic missiles, but then reversed course. Iran also launched a small rocket that reportedly passed about 1,500 yards from a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz.
Times staff writers Hennigan and Memoli reported from Washington and special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran. Staff writers Brian Bennett in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.
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