Tehran. — Iran yesterday released 10 US Navy sailors detained in the Gulf, heading off a potential crisis within days of the expected implementation of its nuclear deal with world powers.
A dramatic series of events started with the sailors — nine men and a woman — being taken into custody after their two patrol boats drifted into Iranian territory late on Tuesday.
US and Iranian officials scrambled to defuse the situation, which unfolded as the nuclear accord edged toward its final steps, with a top Iranian official saying the deal should be implemented by Sunday.
The detention of the sailors raised alarm in Washington but after informal talks with Tehran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said they had been set free.
“Following their apology, they have been released to international waters in the Gulf,” said a statement read out on state television, noting that the sailors had not entered Iranian waters intentionally and had no “hostile intent”.
Video footage showed the Navy personnel with their hands on their heads as they were apprehended. But other footage showed them eating a meal and drinking water, some smiling, while sitting on Persian rugs.
A Pentagon statement confirmed they had been freed.
“There are no indications that the sailors were harmed during their brief detention,” it said, adding: “The Navy will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors’ presence in Iran.”
Admiral Ali Fadavi, the naval commander of the Guards, said an investigation established that “this trespassing was not hostile or for spying purposes”.
Instead “a broken navigation system” had led them astray, he said.
US officials had said one or both of the boats experienced mechanical problems and they had been taken to Farsi Island, which lies roughly midway between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf and houses a base of the Guards, which has its own naval units.
Radio contact was lost with the two vessels — riverine patrol boats under 65 feet (20 metres) in length — while they were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain.
Washington and Tehran have no diplomatic relations but US Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the incident.
Both men cited the sailors’ speedy release as a textbook example of diplomacy, with Kerry thanking “Iranian authorities for their cooperation”.
“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 in a statement.
Zarif said on Twitter: “Happy to see dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the #sailors episode. Let’s learn from this latest example.”
The latter comment seemed a barb aimed at US lawmakers who had quickly jumped on the incident as an example of Iranian hostility.
Kerry and Zarif developed a close working relationship during the nuclear talks, which concluded in July with a deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers of the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany.
The nuclear accord foresees Iran scaling back its activities to put an atomic bomb outside its reach in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi was quoted by Iranian media as saying that UN nuclear inspectors would issue a report on Friday that would be followed by announcement of the deal’s implementation by Sunday.
Kerry last week said the agreement would be implemented “in the coming days”.
The top US diplomat has been criticised by Obama’s opponents in the US Congress as too soft on Tehran.
Those rivals used the incident in the Gulf to hammer on this point, demanding President Barack Obama make a statement and warning Iran must release the sailors.
“Iran is testing the boundaries of this administration’s resolve,” Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said. — AFP.