Iran seized control of two small U.S. Navy boats with 10 sailors aboard in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, but U.S. officials said they were assured by Tehran that the sailors and the vessels, one of which was experiencing mechanical problems, would soon be released without harm.
It was not immediately clear when the sailors — nine men and one woman — would be released, although U.S. officials said Secretary of State John F. Kerry personally phoned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Tuesday afternoon and was told it would happen very shortly.
Iran’s semiofficial Fars News agency in its report took a far more aggressive tone in describing the incident. It said the American boats were found more than a mile inside Iranian-claimed waters and were equipped with three 50-caliber machine guns and GPS devices. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s navy confiscated GPS equipment, according to the Fars report, which would “prove that the American ships were ‘snooping’ around in Iranian waters.”
On Wednesday, however, Iran’s state-run Press TV said a “broken navigation system” caused the two American ships to enter Iranian waters, although U.S. officials have not confirmed the cause, CNN reported.
Even a brief seizure managed to cast a cloud over President Obama’s last State of the Union address, delivered on Capitol Hill just hours after news of the detention first leaked.
The development also comes amid lingering tension over a December incident in which Iranian naval boats fired a rocket near U.S. warships passing through the Strait of Hormuz and in the middle of an escalating feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, for influence across the region.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has come under increasing pressure during recent days from both Democrats and Republicans to punish Iran for carrying out a pair of ballistic missile tests this fall — even as Tehran has begun implementing the nuclear deal that it struck in July with the U.S. and other world powers.
Officials were still scrambling to determine the exact chain of events late Tuesday.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the Navy boats were sailing between Kuwait and Bahrain when the U.S. officials lost contact with them. “We have been in contact with Iran and have received assurances that the crew and the vessels will be returned promptly,” Mr. Cook said.
The sailors were reportedly on a training mission when one of the boats experienced mechanical difficulties and drifted into Iranian-claimed waters in the Persian Gulf. Another senior U.S. official said the second U.S. vessel opted to stay with the one experiencing mechanical difficulties. Both were taken into custody without incident.
It was not clear why the two boats were apparently unable to relay their plight to nearby U.S. military personnel.
Mr. Kerry learned of the incident shortly after noon as he and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter were meeting with their Filipino counterparts at the State Department. The secretary of state, who has forged a personal relationship with Mr. Zarif during years of nuclear negotiations, quickly phoned his Iranian counterpart.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said on MSNBC that the handling of the detention demonstrated how diplomacy between U.S. and Iranian officials “is working.”
“Hopefully, this will be resolved and it won’t be an issue that we’re talking about in a couple of hours,” she said.
Presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, were among a slew of Republicans who took to social media to say even the temporary seizure of the U.S. sailors exposes the larger failure of Mr. Obama’s Iran policy.
“This kind of openly hostile action is not surprising,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, told CNN. “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.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said it was “unthinkable that the administration would lift sanctions and permit Iran to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement, even as the regime brazenly violates its international obligations and rushes to develop the ballistic missile capability to deliver a potential nuclear weapon to the United States.”
Iran was expected to satisfy the terms of last summer’s nuclear deal in just days. Once the U.N. nuclear agency confirms Iran’s actions to roll back its program, theUnited States and other Western powers are obliged to suspend wide-ranging oil, trade and financial sanctions on Tehran. Kerry recently said the deal’s implementation was “days away.”
Officials said the sailors were part of Riverine Squadron 1 based in San Diego and were deployed to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain. When the U.S. lost contact with the boats, ships attached to the USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier strike group began searching the area, along with aircraft flying off the Truman.
Officials said a radio signal from one of the boats showed that they were on Farsi Island, setting off efforts to contact the Iranians. The Riverine boats were not part of the carrier strike group, and were on a training mission as they traveled between Kuwait and Bahrain.
The Riverine boats are not considered high-tech and don’t contain any sensitive equipment, so there were no concerns about the Iranians gaining access to the crafts.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the sensitive incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
⦁ This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.