While Washington maintained early Wednesday that 10 US sailors taken by Iran in the Persian Gulf the day before would be freed during the morning, Iranian military officials indicated their release could be delayed.
“Iran Revolutionary Guards spokesman says that talk of immediate release of US sailors is speculation: ‘I cannot confirm or deny that,'” Thomas Erdbrink, New York Times bureau chief in Tehran, tweeted Wednesday morning.
The investigation into the incident is ongoing, the spokesman added, and officials were in “talks” with the American sailors, Erdbrink reported.
Iran took the 10 US Navy sailors and their two small boats into custody Tuesday after they drifted into Iranian waters following apparent mechanical problems. Iran accused the sailors of trespassing but American officials said Tehran has assured them that the crew and vessels would be returned safely and promptly.
The Iranians appear to be demanding a formal apology from the US as a condition for releasing the sailors. “[Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif took a firm stance and (told [US Secretary of State John] Kerry) that the sailors were in our waters. They need to apologize,” Erdbrink quoted an Iranian admiral as saying.
“All vessels must give prior notice if they want to sail through another country’s waters, especially if they are military,” the admiral, Revolutionary Guards navy commander Ali Fadavi, was quoted by the Iranian Mehr news agency as saying. “In the world of international relations, there is only one instance of innocent passage through international waters, and the presence of American military in the Persian Gulf and their passing through our waters has definitely never been innocent.”
Fadavi added that American flyovers in the area in the hours after the sailors were taken were proof of “Americans’ lack of commitment to their claims of providing peace and security to the region.”
According to Reuters, he said the “final order will be issued soon and they will probably be released,” but did not specify when.
According to US officials, the sailors, nine men and one woman, were held overnight at an Iranian base on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, and were expected to be transferred to a US ship in the region on Wednesday morning local time. Officials said they believe the US had spoken to one of the crew, and all 10 were fine and uninjured.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told The Associated Press that the Riverine boats were moving between Kuwait and Bahrain when the US lost contact with them. They said said some type of mechanical trouble with one of the Riverine boats caused them to drift into Iranian territorial waters near the island, where they were picked up by Iran.
“We have been in contact with Iran and have received assurances that the crew and the vessels will be returned promptly,” Cook said.
The incident follows a series of apparent provocations, including a late December incident in which Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels fired rockets less than a mile from US warships and commercial traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow opening to the Persian Gulf.
It also came amid heightened tensions with Iran, and only hours before President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address to Congress and the public. It set off a dramatic series of calls and meetings as US officials tried to determine the exact status of the crew and reach out to Iranian leaders.
Kerry, who forged a personal relationship with Zarif through three years of nuclear negotiations, called him immediately on learning of the incident, according to a senior US official. Kerry “personally engaged with Zarif on this issue to try to get to this outcome,” the official said.
Officials said the sailors were part of Riverine Squadron 1 based in San Diego and were deployed to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain. When the US 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.
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.
Republican lawmakers seized on the incident as further evidence that Iran is not to be trusted. The House was scheduled to vote Wednesday on Republican-backed legislation that would give Congress greater oversight of the Iran nuclear agreement, which Republicans have derided as a victory for Tehran.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte 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.”