Earlier this week, on January 11, Iran detained 10 United States sailors after their ships strayed into Iranian waters unintentionally. Many around the world were fearful that the incident could create renewed tension between the US and Iran, just days before the US and its allies are expected to lift nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. But, when Iranian authorities released the US Navy personnel less than 24 hours after their capture, commentators hoped it was evidence of better times ahead between the two nations.
The US sailors — nine men and one woman – were handed back to the American naval fleet in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, January 13, after they spent one night in captivity on Farsi, an Iranian island in the Gulf that serves as a naval base for the Revolutionary Guards.
According to the US sailors, the ships, which were on route to Bahrain from Qatar, unintentionally entered Iranian waters because of mechanical and navigational failure.
Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, the commander of the naval branch of the Revolutionary Guard, publicly accepted this explanation.
“We have concluded that the passage of Americans in our territorial waters was not a hostile passage or for espionage or similar acts,” Fadavi told state television. “They were positioned in that area due to the failure of their navigation systems and they were not aware of being close to Farsi Island.”
Then, later on Wednesday, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) released an interview with one of the US sailors, whom it referred to as the US ships’ commander.
“It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake. We didn’t mean to go into Iranian territorial waters,” the unnamed US sailor told state broadcaster IRIB. “The Iranian patrol boats came out when we were having engine issues and had weapons drawn so we tried to talk to them until more boats came out and took us in.”
He added, “The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you for your hospitality and assistance. We had no problems.”
However, US officials have yet to comment on the circumstances under which the apology was delivered. In a statement, the US Central Command Spokesman Lieutenant Commander Ben Tisdale said, "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."
"The crew is currently undergoing the reintegration process and we will continue to investigate this incident. What matters most right now, however, is that our sailors are back safely."
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that "all indications suggest or tell us that our sailors were well taken care of, provided with blankets and food and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today."
According to the US State Department, Secretary Kerry spoke to Iranian officials to thank them for releasing the crew, but did not apologize for the incursion, something that Iran is claiming. Kerry said diplomatic strength and newly developed ties with Iran has secured the quick and safe release of the sailors.
"There is no truth in reporting that Secretary Kerry apologized to the Iranians," said Kerry spokesman John Kirby. "As the Secretary said in his statement this morning, he expressed gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter, and noted that the peaceful and efficient resolution of this issue is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
President Obama did not mention the diplomatic incident in his final State of the Union address on the evening of January 12, a move that several Republican representatives criticized. However, White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended the president’s actions.
"At the White House, we reached the conclusion that further elevating the situation by including it in the State of the Union address would not be the most effective way for us to ensure the safe return of our sailors,” said Earnest. “And I think the outcome, which is the release of the sailors just hours after the president completed his address, is a pretty powerful endorsement of that strategy."
On Wednesday, January 13, the Iranian media also published photos and footage of the US sailors whilst they were in captivity. The decision to pass on and publish the content, which was provided by the Revolutionary Guards’ naval unit, has also attracted criticism.