The Obama administration rushed Wednesday to portray the swift return of 10 U.S. sailors taken captive a day earlier by Iran as a vindication of the president’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran, but a video showing the disarmed, kneeling American sailors being watched by Iranian guards and one of the sailors apologizing to his captors quickly undercut the administration’s self-congratulatory message.
The broadcast of the video on Iranian state TV showed how Tehran seized on the incident to score propaganda points at home before returning the sailors to the American Navy fleet in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials acknowledged the two Navy boats were detained after they inadvertently strayed into Iranian waters. In one clip, a U.S. sailor that Iranian state TV dubbed as the commander of those taken captive, said: “It was a mistake, that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake.”
The incident came at a sensitive moment for both the Obama administration and Iran amid the final push to implement the deal struck last summer designed to curb Iran’s suspect nuclear programs while easing international economic sanctions on Iran. With the Obama administration claiming that sweeping sanctions relief for Iran is just days away, and Iranian authorities claiming to have done everything to keep up their end of the accord, both were seen to be carefully spinning the incident — lest it derail the deal’s impending implementation.
But critics said Wednesday that the video and the treatment of the sailor was just the latest example of Iran exploiting the Obama administration’s willingness to tolerate Iranian misbehavior and provocations in other fields to save the president’s prized nuclear deal. The seizure came in the wake of Iranian missile tests in October and December that have been condemned as violations of international sanctions.
“There is no shameful act that Iran can do that this administration can’t overlook,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and former chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told Fox News.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a 2016 presidential hopeful who has promised to void the Iran deal if he is elected, said at a South Carolina campaign stop Wednesday that Iran has repeatedly embarrassed the U.S. in recent months “because they know they can get away with it while President Barack Obama is in office.”
Several GOP candidates noted that, while the sailors were let go, the administration has been unable to free other Americans still being held in Iranian jails, most notably Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
While President Obama did not mention the sailors’ capture during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, administration officials said vigorous backroom diplomacy, including five phone calls between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, helped to defuse the conflict and avoid a lengthy hostage standoff.
The Pentagon did not publicly identify the sailor who appeared in Wednesday’s footage, and he may simply have been trying to cooperate with his captors in hopes of receiving safe treatment for himself, eight other American men and one woman who were being held.
In the video, which shows the lone female sailor wearing a head covering in accordance with Islamic practices, the sailor also thanked the Iranians for their hospitality, saying their behavior was “fantastic.”
But it was his apology to the Iranians that prompted quick controversy in Washington on Wednesday, because it appeared to directly contradict senior Obama administration officials, who denied that any apology had been given.
Prior to the video’s circulation, Vice President Joseph R. Biden told “CBS This Morning” there was no apology given to Iran because “there’s nothing to apologize for.”
A senior State Department official used more careful language when pressed on the matter during a background briefing with reporters later in the day.
“I can say unequivocally that the U.S. government did not apologize to the government of Iran in any way during the course of this,” said the official, who credited the direct U.S.-Iranian diplomatic contacts forged under Mr. Obama for obtaining the quick release of the sailors.
But the senior official conceded that concerns soared on Tuesday night that the incident might spin out of control in a way that could destroy the nuclear accord.
“At front of mind for everybody — including, I would suspect, on the Iranian side — was the concern that there would be the risk of escalation and the spillover of this issue into other issues, including, no doubt, the nuclear situation.”
In his talks with Mr. Zarif, Mr. Kerry made it repeatedly clear that if the sailors were released quickly and unharmed, “we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us,” the official added.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest made it clear the release of the sailors did not resolve a “long list of concerns that we have” in the bilateral relationship.
“That list includes threatening Israel, developing ballistic missiles in violation of a variety of United Nations Security Council resolutions and supporting terrorism,” Mr. Earnest said. “But today’s outcome is a good reminder that this kind of diplomatic engagement — that has been the target of some criticism — actually does advance the interests of the United States and enhances our national security.”
The rapid resolution was also seen as a victory for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has promoted greater openness with the outside world despite strident opposition from deeply entrenched Iranian hard-liners at home who opposed the nuclear deal.
“Rouhani’s policy of interaction is working,” said Iranian political analyst Saeed Leilaz. “Iran and the U.S. have gone a long way in reducing tensions, but still have a long way to go in improving their contacts. It was a big step forward.”
In Tehran, Mr. Zarif, a close political ally of the president and a frequent target of the hard-line factions, 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.”
By Wednesday morning the sailors and their two riverine boats had been picked up by a U.S. Navy aircraft from where they were being held on a tiny Iran-controlled island in the Persian Gulf and brought to a U.S. military facility in Qatar. While the Pentagon declined to give details on their identities, officials said they were being debriefed and getting medical exams but were not harmed.
The nine men and one woman were held on Farsi Island, an outpost in the middle of the Persian Gulf that has been used as a base for Revolutionary Guard speedboats since the 1980s.
The small, armed U.S. crafts were sailing between Kuwait and Bahrain on a training mission when the U.S. lost contact. It was not immediately clear Wednesday what has caused the boats to veer into Iranian waters.
One U.S. defense official said the Navy has ruled out engine or propulsion failure. Navigation problems, due either to human or mechanical failure, could not be ruled out, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The sailors were part of Riverine Squadron 1, based in San Diego, U.S. officials said. When the U.S. lost contact with the boats, ships attached to the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier strike group began a search, as did aircraft from the Truman. The officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.
Top administration officials pushed back strongly at the notion the incident was a sign of weakness and an indictment of President Obama’s approach to Iran. Mr. Kerry credited the incident’s fast resolution to the “critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country secure and strong.”
“We can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” when the level of trust between the two capitals was far lower, Mr. Kerry added.
Mr. Kerry made no mention of the missile tests during a wide-ranging foreign policy speech at the National Defense University on Wednesday. Instead, he said the administration believes Tehran is very close to meeting all of its commitments under the nuclear accord.
“Implementation Day — the day on which Iran proves it has sufficiently downsized its nuclear program and can begin to receive sanctions relief — will take place soon, likely within the coming days,” he said.
When it happens, hundreds of Iranian banks and officials, who had been involved in the country’s previously U.N.-banned nuclear program, will be granted access to billions of dollars in oil assets that had been frozen for years by Washington and its allies.
Republicans argue the relief is unwarranted because Iran has continued violating U.N. resolutions with its missile tests and engaged in a host of other destabilizing activities recently — including carrying out a spate of cyberattacks on U.S. targets and exporting weapons to Syria and Yemen.
The Iranian violations and the detentions of Mr. Rezaian and other Americans hung in the backdrop Wednesday as the GOP-controlled House took up a bill to prevent Mr. Obama from lifting sanctions on Iranian banks and officials seen to be involved in terrorism or Iran’s ballistic missile program. The bill passed overwhelmingly but was withdrawn by GOP leaders after a parliamentary dispute over how quickly the vote was gaveled to a close, causing more than 100 lawmakers to miss the vote.
The House is expected to try again — and approve the bill — later this month.
It was not immediately clear how the legislation might impact the president’s calculus — or use of executive power — toward sanctions relief. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill said the legislation appeared to be more about “embarrassing” the president on the world stage than a serious effort to try and find successful ways to rein in the Iranian regime.
• Dave Boyer and Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.