On January 13, the 10 U.S. sailors who were captured by Iran on January 12 after their two naval boats entered Iranian waters near Farsi Island, in the Persian Gulf, were freed, less than 24 hours after their capture. However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and U.S. officials are seemingly at odds as to whether or not the U.S. apologized prior to the sailors’ release.
According to a statement from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps that was quoted in Iran’s semi-official FARS News Agency, Iranian officials released the sailors after coming to the conclusion that their vessels’ entry into Iranian waters was unintentional and “after they extended an apology.” The statement then went on to say, “The Americans have undertaken not to repeat such mistakes.”
However, during the morning of January 13, American officials quickly refuted that report.
“There is no truth in reporting that Secretary Kerry apologized to the Iranians,” Kerry spokesman John Kirby told reporters on January 13. Kirby later tweeted that the claim had “zero” validity. “As the Secretary said in his statement this morning, he expressed gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter, and noted that the peaceful and efficient resolution of this issue is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who has kept open lines and U.S. officials, made no reference to an apology in a tweet he sent out after the sailors were released.
“Happy to see dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the #sailors episode. Let’s learn from this latest example,” Zarif wrote.
According to a Navy statement, the captured sailors have been transferred to shore and are no longer aboard the USS Anzio, which was the ship that helped bring the sailors back to U.S. custody.
The wait for the sailors’ release during the morning of January 13 went on for hours, with Iranian officials questioning the sailors about their motives and demanding an apology from the U.S.
However, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp spokesman told state-run media that the boats had ended up in Iranian waters by accident.
“The evidence suggests that they unintentionally entered the Iranian waters because of the failure of their navigational system,” IRGC spokesman Ramazan Sharif said.
According to a U.S. official, the sailors traveled to a rendezvous point in the Persian Gulf on their two boats during the afternoon of January 13. The Iranian boats that escorted the sailors turned back once the sailors had reached the rendezvous point in international waters.
The sailors then boarded the guided missile cruiser USS Anzio and underwent medical checks on January 13.
“There are no indications that the Sailors were harmed during their brief detention,” the U.S. Navy said in a statement.
The Navy said that it would look into how the sailors ended up in Iranian territory.
In a statement on January 13, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter.
“As a former Sailor myself, I know the importance of naval presence around the world and the critical work being done by our Navy in the Gulf region,” Kerry said, later adding, “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.”
During the morning of January 13, officials questioned the sailors to see whether they “entered Iranian waters intentionally on an intelligence mission,” the IRGC said, according to state-run Press TV.
An Iranian navy official told state-run media that Iran’s foreign minister called for the U.S. to apologize for the “encroachment” of American vessels into Iranian waters.
IRGC Navy commander Adm. Ali Fadavi said that the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf waters “disturbed the security of the area” and criticized the U.S. Navy maneuvers.
The ships had been en route from Kuwait to Bahrain and were sailing near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported that the ships were “rescued” by Iranian navy sailors.
A senior Obama administration official said that there was nothing to indicate that the capture was a hostile act on the part of Iran.
Similar incidents in the past, such as the capture of British marines in 2007, had turned into prolonged standoffs that further alienated Tehran and the West.
However, this time was different, as the Pentagon and the State Department said that one of the ships had experienced mechanical problems en route to Bahrain from Kuwait on a routine mission on January 12, and the Iranians seem to have accepted that explanation.
The sailors’ release was announced shortly before 10 a.m. on an Iranian state-run news channel, IRINN. “The detained U.S. sailors, after it was realized that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was unintentional, and after the sailors apologized, were released into international waters in the Persian Gulf,” the channel reported, attributing the statement to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, released a statement praising the “timely way in which this situation was resolved” and thanked Mr. Kerry “for his diplomatic engagement with Iran to secure our sailors’ swift return.”
The capture and ultimate release of U.S. sailors comes at a particularly crucial time in the Iranian-American relationship, as it was just days before a nuclear deal is to be formally set into place, which would have the U.S. unfreezing approximately $100 billion in Iranian assets.