WASHINGTON — Ten American sailors were being held in Iranian custody after two small U.S. naval craft apparently briefly entered Iranian territorial waters, a U.S. senior defense official said Tuesday.
The official, however, expects the situation to be resolved quickly. A senior administration official said there is nothing to indicate this was anything hostile on the part of any entity in Iran, adding that the U.S. has received high-level assurances that the sailors will be released promptly.
“Certainly, everybody should be aware of the fact we have been in touch with the Iranians and they have assured us that our sailors are safe and that they’ll be allowed to continue their journey promptly,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Earnest said that President Barack Obama will be in touch with members of Congress about the incident. It occurred hours before he was due to deliver his final State of the Union on Tuesday night.
White House Communications Director Jen Psaki told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the incident will not be addressed in Tuesday night’s speech.
The U.S. is uncertain whether the vessels, which were sailing near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, intentionally entered Iranian waters, and the senior defense official said no distress call was made by the ships.
Another senior defense official told CNN the boats were in the vicinity of Farsi Island for refueling. It’s not clear whether they were refueled, raising the possibility they ran out.
The U.S. lost contact with the two ships, which were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain, a senior administration official told CNN.
A senior administration official told CNN that Secretary of State John Kerry started immediately reaching out to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif once he was notified of the incident. When Kerry reached Zarif on the phone, he explained that the boat had a mechanical problem and that the boat accidentally strayed. Zarif assured Kerry the sailors were being treated well and would be released.
A U.S. official said that it is believed that the sailors were still pierside as of late Tuesday afternoon. Farsi Island is an area where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — which the semi-official Fars News agency said detained the service members — tends to operate, and they are much more aggressive than the Iranian Navy.
A U.S. official said the sailors may be spending the night in Iran, and it’s not expected that they would depart until after daylight.
The Fars News agency also reported that the American boats were equipped with three, 50-caliber machine guns. The boats crossed a little more than a mile into Iranian-patrolled waters, reported Fars, which cited information recorded on the GPS device of the American vessels and now in the hands of the IRGC.
According to Fars, the “arrested” sailors were nine men and one woman. Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, reported that the boats were “rescued” by Iranian Navy sailors.
Iranian representatives at the U.N. mission in New York had no comment.
Incident casts shadow on State of the Union Address
The incident was sure to overshadow Obama’s State of the Union address.
Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner suggested to Tapper on CNN that the President delay the start of the speech.
“I think the White House needs to be honest and transparent as quickly as possible with the members of the Congress, the House and the Senate,” Gardner said.
The issue quickly became a discussion topic on the 2016 campaign trail.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson tweeted: “While POTUS is preparing to talk about his so called “accomplishments”, 10 of our American sailors are being held by #Iran.”
And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted: “If our sailors aren’t coming home yet, they need to be now. No more bargaining. Obama’s humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also joined in the Obama-bashing. “This is the latest manifestation of the weakness of Barack Obama, that every bad actor … views Obama as a laughingstock,” he said.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum demanded the sailors’ immediate return.
“WH says our sailors are being given courtesies? This is feckless. WH is endangering our troops. Demand their return NOW!” he tweeted.
Impact on nuclear deal
The arrest of the sailors came days before a deal agreed between Iran and world powers to freeze its nuclear program is expected to go into force. The IRGC is typically seen as a hardline opponent of President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate government, which engineered the deal but has had little choice to fall in behind it after the negotiations were endorsed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The IGRC, which is largely responsible for Iran’s nuclear research, is also expected to benefit financially from the lifting of sanctions under the pact in return for a halting of Tehran’s nuclear program. But the lifting of sanctions is what is due to begin with the pending implementation, and this incident could throw a wrench in the works.
The capture of the Navy sailors was quickly seized on by U.S. opponents of the nuclear deal as the latest in a series of provocations by Tehran since the deal was agreed, which include aggressive attempts to wield power in its immediate neighborhood and ballistic missile tests that the United Nations charged violated a Security Council resolution.
“This kind of openly hostile action is not surprising. It’s exactly what I and so many others predicted when President Obama was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran — that it would embolden their aggression towards the United States and our allies in the region,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
Cotton also pointed to its timing right before the State of the Union.
“It’s humiliating to Barack Obama and therefore the United States to have American sailors held hostage during his final State of the Union,” Cotton said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 Republican presidential candidate, also criticized Obama and the nuclear deal.
“Iran is testing the boundaries of this administrations resolve and everybody knows the boundaries are pretty wide and the administration is willing to let them get away with many things. You’ll only see this accelerate since the deal was signed with Iran,” he said. “That’s why as president on my first day in office I will repeal the nuclear deal that Barack Obama has signed with Iran.”
Earnest, however, pushed back on the criticism of the deal.
“Certainly the United States has been concerned of the kind of provocative destabilizing actions that have been a hallmark of Iranian behavior over the last several decades,” Earnest said. “In fact, that is why … the United States and this president made it a priority to organize the international community to reach an agreement with Iran that will prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
The rising tensions between Iran and other regional powers and the United States also may play into a volatile political environment inside the country ahead of crucial elections in the Islamic Republic next month for the country’s parliament, the Majlis, and a powerful body called the Assembly of Experts that has the power to appoint the supreme leader.
Back in 2007, Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf and accused them of trespassing in Iranian territorial waters before releasing them almost two weeks later. The British service members were paraded before then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and critics said their apologies were extracted under duress. Britain maintained that its service members never entered Iranian waters.