Intense U.S.-Iranian diplomacy led to the release early Wednesday of 10 American sailors captured by Iran after they strayed into its territorial waters, a smooth resolution to a potentially fraught incident that the Obama administration attributed to communications channels established during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
“We can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said. He thanked Iranian authorities for their “cooperation and quick response,” and said the sailors were treated well in the relatively short time they were held.
“These are situations which, as everybody here knows, have the ability, if not properly guided, to get out of control,” Kerry said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
The peaceful solution to the potential crisis took much of the steam out of critics who had charged just a day earlier that administration foreign policy weakness was responsible for what was seen as Iranian aggression.
With the sailors returned to the U.S. base in Qatar on Wednesday, critics pointed at Iranian videos showing them on their knees, with hands locked behind their heads, while the ship was searched by armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces.
The sailors, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said, “went through hell.”
Trump and others said that the only reason Iran cooperated so quickly was that “they get $100 billion during the next short period of time; they don’t want to jeopardize that.”
Some regional experts agreed. “The Iranians had about $100 billion reasons why they might not want to be holding those sailors right now,” said Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser on the region. The reference is to the amount of currently frozen assets Iran is due to receive once international sanctions are lifted under the nuclear deal, expected to go into effect in a matter of days.
The lasting nature of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy would have been better tested if this week’s incident “had happened two weeks from now,” Ross said.
Implementation of the nuclear agreement was also clearly on the mind of the administration. Kerry, who exchanged at least five telephone calls Tuesday with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif while the sailors were being held, was concerned “first and foremost…with the safety and security of the people who were caught up in this incident, the American sailors.”
“But not just in the back of his mind…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,” said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on the incident under anonymity rules set by the Department.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a frequent critic of President Obama’s national security policy, charged that Iran’s boarding of the boats and detention of the sailors was a violation of international law. He slammed U.S. officials for “falling all over themselves to offer praise for Iran’s graciousness in detaining our ships and service members.”
The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention authorizes coastal states to take “necessary steps” to prevent passage through their territorial waters that “is not innocent,” but so-called “innocent” vessels are exempt from arrest and seizure and subject only to diplomatic complaint and orders to leave.
The United States and Iran, however, are among a minority of nations that have never ratified the convention.
The Defense Department was reluctant to release military details of the situation until the sailors themselves were fully debriefed, officials said. Following the Iranian release of videos, U.S. defense officials confirmed that one of the 10 sailors–seen in the Iranian videos wearing a headscarf–was a woman, but provided no other information.
Officials acknowledged having seen one video in which a sailor acknowledged the “mistake” of being in Iranian waters. “The video appears to be authentic but we cannot speak to the conditions of the situation or what the crew was experiencing at the time,” said Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a spokesman at the Pentagon.
“The crew is currently undergoing the reintegration process and we will continue to investigate this incident,” he added. “What matters most right now, however, is that our sailors are back safely.”
Military regulations stipulate that a captured service member is required only to give “name, rank, service number and date of birth,” and say that captives will “evade answering further questions” to the utmost of their ability.
Through debriefing, the official said, “hopefully [the sailor] will be able to relay the story….This guy may have been doing what he needed to do to release tensions.”
Officials also raised questions about videos and photos showing the sailors seated on rugs in a room in their stocking feet, eating and generally looking bored, along with pictures of Iranians rifling through their American passports.
According to a senior U.S. defense official, the Iranians could have pilfered some personal information from the captives. It is common for U.S. troops to keep their dogtags, with identifying information including social security numbers, in the laces of their right boot.
Zarif echoed Kerry’s conciliatory remarks, saying that he was “happy to see dialogue and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors’ episode.” In a post on his Twitter account, Zarif said “Let’s learn from this latest example.”
But the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose navy held the sailors, had its own complaints about American behavior, indicating that diplomatic comity between the two nations may not yet have extended to their military forces. “All vessels must give prior notice if they want to sail through another country’s waters, especially if they are military,” said Ali Fadavi, Commander of the IRGC Navy, Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported.
Fadavi also complained of what he called “irresponsible” and provocative behavior by U.S. naval forces in the region after the capture. He said that while the captured sailors accepted their predicament calmly, “the USS [Harry S.] Truman aircraft carrier showed unprofessional moves for 40 minutes after the detention of the trespassers.” Iran, he said, was “highly prepared with our coast-to-sea missiles, missile launching speedboats and our numerous capabilities” and were ready to strike if the Americans took any hostile action.
The senior U.S. defense official confirmed that the Truman and its battle group were in the area, but declined to detail their activities. The Iranians, the official said, “can claim all sorts of things. We’re going to say that we maintain freedom of navigation in the [Persian] Gulf.”
Defense officials said they also were unclear on the condition of the American boats, which left Iran, with escorts, under their own steam and rendezvoused with U.S. vessels outside Iran’s territorial waters.
The sailors were en route to Kuwait from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf in two small riverine boats when communications with them ceased. Defense officials said at the time that the vessels appeared to have had mechanical trouble or ran out of fuel, although an Iranian official on Wednesday, after their departure, cited problems with the GPS navigational system on one of the boats.
There appeared to be no disagreement that the boats strayed into Iranian waters, where they were confronted by IRGC patrol boats and taken to an Iranian naval facility on Farsi Island.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Kerry first learned of the incident around noon on Tuesday, when they were meeting at in the State Department’s eighth floor diplomatic rooms with their visiting Filipino counterparts, the senior State Department official said.
Kerry, who had a previously scheduled telephone call at 12:45 with Zarif, quickly gathered information and made the call. Beyond the “most important priority” that the sailors be released quickly and safely, the official said, Kerry told Zarif that “if we are able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.”
Kerry consulted with Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice throughout the day and spoke again with Zarif at 2 p.m., 3:15 p.m. and about 10:30 p.m. following Obama’s State of the Union speech. Kerry and Zarif had at least one other brief exchange of information, the official said. Within hours, the sailors were on their way to Qatar.
Missy Ryan, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe, in Fort Campbell, Ky., contributed to this report.