This post has been updated.
For the U.S. Navy, it was like hitting the public-relations jackpot: An aircraft carrier cruising the seas in the Middle East this week stumbled across an Iranian fishing vessel in distress, hijacked by pirates.
Forces from the aircraft carrier’s strike group swiftly made the most of the moment. They seized 15 Somali pirates without firing a shot and rescued 13 hungry Iranian fishermen who had been held hostage for several weeks.
There was no official response, much less a thank you, from the Iranian government Friday after the Navy released details of the rescue mission.
[On Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast described the rescue as “humanitarian” act, correspondent Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran.]
U.S. officials, in contrast, couldn’t stop talking about it. The Navy publicized video of the rescue and plenty of photographs, including one shot of an Iranian fisherman giving a U.S. sailor a joyful hug.
Adding to the sweet irony was that the aircraft carrier just happened to be the USS John C. Stennis. That’s the same carrier whose presence in the region had prompted Tehran three days earlier to hector Washington to stay out of the Persian Gulf, spooking global oil markets.
After giving the Iranians fresh provisions and fuel, the Americans bade the crew a happy farewell Friday, along with a parting gift: U.S. Navy baseball caps for the grateful Iranians to wear as they posed for pictures.
Navy leaders tried to sound magnanimous, but could barely suppress their glee.
“It was a great outcome for some innocent Iranian fisherman, and it’s an indication of who we are as Americans,” Rear Adm. Craig Faller, commander of the Stennis strike group, told reporters in a conference call Friday from his position in the North Arabian Sea. “We’d do that for any country in the world.”
Of course, only one country in recent days has threatened to close access to the Strait of Hormuz — the Persian Gulf bottleneck through which almost one-fifth of the world’s oil supply flows. And only one country issued a hostile warning to the United States not to send an aircraft carrier back to the Gulf after the Stennis sailed away last week.
After the turn of events Friday, the Pentagon distributed a picture of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta phoning Faller — who broke away from his chat with journalists to take the call — to offer his personal congratulations.
The State Department gushed.
“This is an incredible story. This is a great story,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters. “The very same ships and set of vessels that the Iranians protested on its last voyage through Hormuz, the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, just rescued this Iranian dhow from pirates.”
Despite the tensions between Tehran and Washington, their navies maintain open channels of communication on a tactical level, said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said that the U.S. Navy has repeatedly rescued Iranian nationals in the region and handed them over to the Iranian navy, with little fanfare. Fishermen and other seafarers, after all, routinely find themselves in need of rescue – whether because of bad weather, or because they’ve simply become stranded at sea.
U.S. officials, Zenko said, seemed eager to convey that a U.S. naval presence in the region can benefit even Iran.
Navy officials said the rescue began Thursday morning in the Arabian Sea, about 175 miles southeast of Muscat, Oman. The Stennis and its strike group — which were supporting air combat operations over Afghanistan — received a distress call from another merchant vessel that feared it was about to be boarded by pirates.
The Navy intervened with a helicopter and followed the suspected pirates back to the Al Molai, an Iranian-flagged fishing dhow. The USS Kidd, a guided-missile destroyer, assisted by the USS Mobile Bay, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, made contact with the crew and discovered they had been held hostage by pirates for about 45 days.
Once the pirates found out that the Navy was onto them, they tried to hide aboard the Iranian ship and ultimately surrendered without a shot, U.S. officials said. They are being detained aboard the Stennis. The Navy said the Obama administration will determine if they should be prosecuted, and by whom.