Iran’s supreme leader on Sunday awarded “medals of conquest” to five naval commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for their arrest earlier this month of 10 US sailors whose two vessels strayed into Iranian waters.
Ayatollah Khamenei, whose duties also make him head of the army, presented the awards to Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi and other commanders, the Iranian Tasnim news agency reported.
He also gave the green light for others involved in the operation to be promoted.
The American sailors were detained on January 12 and released a day later. The US Navy said the crew members were returned safely and there were no indications they had been harmed while in custody, but the incident, and Iranian boasting about it, served to chill ties between Tehran and Washington that had recently thawed slightly.
Last week, Khamenei told the naval crew that had taken the American sailors captive that divine forces had delivered the seamen to Iran.
Iranian political and military leaders have repeatedly castigated the US over the incident, gloating about ostensible American panic, cowardice and lack of professionalism, and releasing a video showing soldiers being held at gunpoint and one sailor tearfully apologizing.
American officials have spoken out against Iran’s release of the video, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered the deal to have the sailors released and called the footage “angering.”
The incident coincided with the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in the wake of last summer’s nuclear deal, but Khamenei and other senior Iranian figures have repeatedly emphasized that the deal does not mark a warming of Iran’s attitude to the United States.
Earlier this month, a top Iranian general boasted that the sailors briefly held by the Islamic Republic were “crying” as they were taken in by his nation’s naval forces.
Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council (IRGC), said “the marines were crying when they were being captured, but they later felt better after the IRGC forces treated them with kindness.”
“The Americans humbly admitted our might and power, and we freed the marines after being assured that they had entered the Iranian waters unintentionally, and we even returned their weapons,” Salami added.
General Fadavi said his forces had their missiles locked on a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as the incident unfolded, and were awaiting orders to fire.
He scoffed at the “unprofessional behavior” of the US fleet during the crisis, warned that Iran could have inflicted an unprecedented “catastrophe” upon the US forces, and bragged that the US would never prevail in a confrontation with Iran in the Gulf.
One day later, the IRGC Public Relations in a statement said the sailors were freed following an apology from the US and after technical and operational investigations indicated that the intrusion into Iranian territorial waters was “unintentional.”