News / Middle East

    US Investigating Iran's Brief Detention of US Sailors

    Photo, released by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency Jan. 13, 2016, shows detention of U.S. Navy sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, Iran.
    Photo, released by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency Jan. 13, 2016, shows detention of U.S. Navy sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, Iran.

    The United States welcomed Iran's release of 10 U.S. Navy sailors Wednesday, a day after they drifted into Iranian waters and were detained.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said resolution of the incident was a success for diplomacy, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he was grateful to have the service members “back in our hands.”

    American authorities are still unsure of the circumstances surrounding the crews' detention, Carter said, in part because they have not yet been able "to fully debrief the sailors."

    The freed Navy crew members — nine men and one woman — are now at a U.S. facility in Qatar. Iran also released the two small patrol boats the Americans were using when they were detained.

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    January 13, 2016 11:45 AM
    The United States confirmed that Iran released 10 U.S. Navy sailors Wednesday, a day after they were detained when they drifted into Iranian territorial waters.

    The sailors were traveling through the Persian Gulf from Kuwait toward Bahrain when U.S. controllers lost contact with them Tuesday. Iranian Revolutionary Guards who patrol the Gulf boarded the U.S. vessels and detained the crew members near Farsi Island, Iranian territory roughly midway between Kuwait and Bahrain.

    Questions remain

    A U.S. defense official told VOA that Navy tracking equipment found the sailors' boats to be "dead in the water, and in Iranian water."

    "Why?" he asked. "We're still figuring that out."

    The Navy then "found the boats on Farsi Island, parked with no crew."

    As to whether it was mechanical failure or navigational error that put the sailors in Iranian territorial waters, the official said, "Let the investigation work itself out."

    A U.S. defense official added, "We do know that it likely wasn't mechanical failure. There's a chance that it was navigational error instead, but we really must await completion of the ongoing investigation into the circumstances."

    U.S. sailors under detention in the Farsi Island by Iran's Revolutionary Guards after investigations showed their patrol boats had entered Iranian waters unintentionally, Jan. 13, 2016.
    U.S. sailors under detention in the Farsi Island by Iran's Revolutionary Guards after investigations showed their patrol boats had entered Iranian waters unintentionally, Jan. 13, 2016.

    "The [Obama] administration is pretending as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred," Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in a statement, pointing out that under international law, navy boats do not lose their sovereign immune status when they are in distress at sea.  

    "By failing to affirm basic principles of international law, it places our Navy and Coast Guard vessels and the men and women who sail them at increased risk in the future," McCain said.

    Peaceful resolution

    Kerry praised Iran for "swiftly resolving" the situation.

    "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," Kerry said.

    President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016.
    President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 12, 2016.

    The State Department said there was no formal U.S. apology to Iran, since the sailors' intrusion into Iranian waters was accidental.

    Iranian television broadcast what appeared to be a brief interview with one of the American sailors, who said the crew apologized for entering Iranian waters by mistake.

    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted that he was happy to see "dialogue and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors episode. Let’s learn from this latest example."

    Ramadhan Sharif, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, told Iran’s Aftab News that the U.S. servicemen were questioned while in detention.

    The situation in the Gulf was unfolding as Obama went to Capitol Hill Tuesday evening to deliver his annual State of the Union message, televised live through the country and abroad. The president did not mention the Gulf incident, but did take note of the nuclear agreement reached last year between Tehran and a group of world powers, saying, "The world has avoided another war."

    The nuclear agreement is expected to be implemented in the coming days, following steps Iran has taken to curb its nuclear activities. Western governments have agreed in return to lift long-standing economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

    Farsi Island is home to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval base, which may be why the sailors were quickly detained, according to Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow in The Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

    “Most countries would do the same thing if foreign sailors came that close to a naval base,” Kroenig told VOA.

    Less than a month ago U.S. officials criticized Iran for carrying out a "highly provocative" rocket test near U.S. boats passing through the Strait of Hormuz in the region.

    Chris Hannas in Washington, Nike Ching and Pam Dockins at the State Department, and other VOA journalists contributed to this report.

    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea, Japan and Egypt.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: hamed
    January 15, 2016 10:28 AM
    What do you think about Turkey who turned down the Russian jet ? Do u think, Iran should do the same? You should stop Saudi to support your own people from terrorism

    by: Umer from: Pakistan
    January 13, 2016 11:01 PM
    USA army hired by KSA royal on rent. Dual face of USA, one side support royal Saudi family, other side show sympathy with democratic Saudi prisoners. Is this US democracy?

    by: Mark from: Virginia
    January 13, 2016 6:06 PM
    Too many people, including Sen. McCain, or too eager to beat that war drum every time something happens. I have no beef with what Iran did; we strayed too close to their territory (by accident, awaiting investigation) with an armed vessel and they detained the crew, questioned them and released them. We would do the very same thing if any vessel flying a foreign flag strayed too close to our shores.
    Given such tensions in the Gulf at this time, and past actions and reactions by several nations in that region, it is expected that things like this would happen, also given that human frailty of mind and judgment are involved. It was an error; no harm no foul and both sides did not draw weapons or blood from this encounter.
    The Persian Gulf is a crowded waterway and an important one for several nations. Accidents do happen. Be glad this did not ignite into a lethal confrontation. Be glad that diplomacy and cool heads prevailed and avoided an irreversible unfortunate-ness.
    In Response

    by: lone eagle from: Bangkok, Thailand
    January 14, 2016 11:36 PM
    Bill from USA you are missing the point. Why because a fully armed US Navy vessel would not have provoked the same response from an allied country that did not pose a national security hostile threat to US national security interests or its allies.

    The solution to the recent incident in the Persian Gulf is internationalize the entire gulf since it serves as an international waterway for the entire world because of oil shipments.

    If Iran as a member of the UN would fully comply with all UN treaties such as the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights then it would not be treated as a pariah state. But until it does then it must be regarded as no different than a Colombian drug cartel.
    In Response

    by: Bill from: USA
    January 14, 2016 12:08 PM
    lone eagle, actually you are missing the point. Why would the Iranian Revolutionary Guards ignore two fully armed vessels and crew well inside their territory and allow another bigger armed vessel come inside their territory? Actually, what country would allow such a thing?!
    In Response

    by: lone eagle from: Bangkok, Thailand
    January 14, 2016 2:22 AM
    Mark you are missing the point. Iranian Revolutionary Guards could have ignored what happened and allow the US Navy to come in and retrieve the vessel since this patrol vessel did not pose a threat. But Iranian Revolutionary Guards opted to seize the vessel and its crew that will in all likelihood encourage future Revolutionary Guard units to be more aggressive in the future against the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. The young Revolutionary Guard hotheads may well be encouraged by this recent action of theirs to ramp up the stakes.

    The US is simply kicking the can down the road for the next administration and this recent action by the Revolutionary Guards raises the question who is in charge of Iran's military that allows Iranian rules of engagement that may cause the next Revolutionary Guard vessel to be blown out of the water.

    by: Mrs. Tara Screamweiner from: LA
    January 13, 2016 12:29 PM
    Obama claims “we need to focus on destroying” ISIS, omits fact NATO arming, funding ISIS “We need to focus on destroying ISIL,” the president stated, adding that ISIS militants “need to be rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.” But in the real world, the White House and several NATO nations, particularly Turkey, are arming and funding ISIS-linked militants.

    A leaked 2012 Pentagon document revealed the U.S. and other NATO nations deliberately backed al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into ISIS, and other Islamic extremist groups to overthrow Syrian president Bashir al-Assad. “The Salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” the Pentagon document stated. “The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support [this] opposition, while Russia, China and Iran ‘support the [Assad] regime.’”

    This support continues to this day. For one thing, the White House gave ISIS a 45 minute warning before bombing their oil tankers by dropping leaflets advising jihadists to flee before air strikes in Syria. “Get out of your trucks now, and run away from them. Warning: air strikes are coming. Oil trucks will be destroyed. Get away from your oil trucks immediately. Do not risk your life,” the leaflet read.

    by: Daniel from: Seattle
    January 13, 2016 10:55 AM
    Since American Naval vessels and Servicemen are now Iran's to seize at their own discretion, I guess all that's left for Americans to do is thank them for giving them back.
    Americans are still free to feel anyway they want about this, just know that your feelings have no bearing on this observable fact. Our vessels are theirs to seize.
    In Response

    by: Nathan
    January 14, 2016 12:12 PM
    You are provided with hard facts, not opinions. Accepting the facts is not a matter of choice in a discussion, it's a necessity. You are right, it seems very unlikely but yet that it what actually happened.
    In Response

    by: Daniel from: Seattle
    January 14, 2016 8:34 AM
    I have no control over what you choose to accept. I only know that there's no part of this explanation which sounds even remotely feasible to me. Frankly, I'm shocked at how ham-handed and flagrant this piece of dissemblance is, but I am even more shocked at the blind uinquestioning obedience and total lack of basic skepticism of those trying to foist it on the rest of us.
    In Response

    by: Nathan
    January 13, 2016 4:57 PM

    You fail to understand that the boats could not move on their own due to mechanical failure.

    So they couldn't be commanded to leave, escorted out or any sort of action that would require the boats to use their engines.

    What Iran did is in accordance to international norms and treaties.

    The Armed vessels inside their territory were towed to safety, the sailors and their intentions were processed, they were provided with food, blankets and rest time and after less than 24 hours they were released, with no arms shot, no harm done to any of them.

    The sailors also acted based on international treaties, they lied down their weapons and lowed to be searched to show no intention of aggression. Two military vessels armed to the teeth with armed sailors in another country's territory close to a military site of that country is not a good first step to be situated in, so the sailors acted wisely.
    In Response

    by: Daniel from: Seattle
    January 13, 2016 1:28 PM
    How's about a verbal command to leave? A shot across the bow? An escort out of their waters? Shall I continue with any number of other contingencies available to them aside from boarding and seizing our vessels?

    You can believe the spin that this is some great diplomatic success if you want, what else can they say at this point? They certainly aren't going to come out acknowledge an act of aggression that they have no intention of responding to, in our new paradigm of deference to America's enemy, Iran.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    January 13, 2016 12:31 PM
    You miss the point that the military armed vessels were in Iranian territory. How would do you think the US would respond if armed foreign vessels entered American territory? I repeat, "Armed" vessels.

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