US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked Iran Wednesday for resolving the dispute over 10 captured US sailors “peacefully and efficiently,” even as Vice President Joe Biden denied the US had apologized for the incident.
“I want to express my gratitude to the Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter,” Kerry said in a statement.
All 10 US Navy sailors detained by Iran after drifting into its territorial waters a day earlier were freed, the US and Iran said Wednesday.
“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 added.
The nine American men and one woman were held in an Iranian base on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf after being detained nearby on Tuesday.
The US military has said that mechanical trouble with one of the boats caused them to drift into Iranian territorial waters near the island, where they were picked up by Iran.
The Navy said the American crew members had returned safely and there were no indications they had been harmed while in custody. The Navy added that it “will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors’ presence in Iran.”
— Abas Aslani (@AbasAslani) January 13, 2016
The White House said new lines of communication with Iran established during nuclear negotiations were key to the quick release of the sailors.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said he was hesitant to draw big lessons from the incident about the state of US-Iran relations, but said open lines established recently are “extraordinarily important” in resolving situations such as the one in the crowded Persian Gulf.
McDonough said Kerry’s relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif played a key role in this case.
Kerry, who forged a personal relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the three years of nuclear negotiations, called his Iranian counterpart immediately on learning of the incident, according to a senior US official.
Kerry “personally engaged” with Zarif on the issue, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Zarif “had a firm stance” during the telephone conversation with Kerry about the sailors’ presence in Iran’s territorial waters and “said they should not have come and should apologize.”
Writing on Twitter Wednesday, Zarif said the incident was resolved through “dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness.”
“Let’s learn from this latest example,” he suggested.
Happy to see dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the #sailors episode. Let’s learn from this latest example.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 13, 2016
The Revolutionary Guards’ official website published images of the detained US sailors before their release, showing them sitting on the floor of a room.
The sole woman had her hair covered by a brown cloth. The pictures also showed what appeared to be their two boats.
“After determining that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was not intentional and their apology, the detained American sailors were released in international waters,” a statement posted online by the Guards said Wednesday.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking later to “CBS This Morning,” denied that Americans had apologized for the incident.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Biden said. “When you have a problem with the boat, you apologize the boat had a problem? No, and there was no looking for any apology. This was just standard nautical practice.”
The incident underlined deep mistrust between the US and Iran developed over four decades of thorny relations, during which Washington and Tehran had no official ties, following the storming of the US Embassy and a 444-day standoff during which 60 American diplomatic officials were held hostage by the Islamic Republic.
But the quick end to the standoff underscored a thaw in recent years between the enemy countries forged amid negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which resulted in a landmark deal slated to go into effect in the coming days, according to officials.
Gen. Ali Fadavi, the navy chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, was quoted earlier Wednesday by Iranian state TV as saying that the American boats had shown “unprofessional acts” for 40 minutes before being picked up by Iranian forces after entering the country’s territorial waters. He said Tehran did not consider the US Navy boats violating Iranian territorial waters as an “innocent passage.”
The sailors were nonetheless allowed to make contact with the US military, based on Iran’s “responsibilities and Islamic mercy” late Tuesday, he said.
The Guard’s 200,000-strong force is different from the regular Iranian military and is charged with protecting the ruling system. Its naval forces are heavily dependent on armed speedboats that can be used in teams to swarm much larger vessels.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he was pleased with the sailors’ release and he thanked Kerry for his diplomatic efforts.
“Around the world, the US Navy routinely provides assistance to foreign sailors in distress, and we appreciate the timely way in which this situation was resolved,” Carter said.