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Middle East france 24

Iran holds two US navy boats in Persian Gulf

© AFP | US Navy crew on top of a Riverine Command Boat at dusk in the Arabian Sea in May 2013.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-01-13

Iran was holding 10 US Navy sailors and their two small boats that drifted into Iranian waters after experiencing mechanical problems on Tuesday, but Tehran has assured the US that the crews will be "promptly" returned.

The sailors, nine men and one woman, were being held overnight at an Iranian base on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, and were expected to be transferred to a US ship in the region on Wednesday morning local time. Officials said they believe the US had spoken to the crew, and all 10 were fine.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told AP that the Riverine boats were moving between Kuwait and Bahrain when the US lost contact with them.

US officials said some type of mechanical trouble with one of the boats caused them to drift into Iranian territorial waters near the island, where they were picked up by Iran.

The semi-official Iranian news agency, FARS, said the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s navy had detained 10 foreign forces, believed to be Americans, and said the sailors were trespassing in Iranian waters.

“We have been in contact with Iran and have received assurances that the crew and the vessels will be returned promptly,” Cook said.

The incident came amid heightened tensions with Iran, and only hours before President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address to Congress and the public. It set off a dramatic series of calls and meetings as US officials tried to determine the exact status of the crew and reach out to Iranian leaders.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who forged a personal relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif through three years of nuclear negotiations, called Zarif immediately on learning of the incident, according to a senior US official.

"Importantly, as a result of the diplomacy that took place to get the nuclear deal done, there is now a sustained channel of communication between the Iranian foreign minister and the Americans, to make sure that inadvertent situations don’t escalate into bigger crises," Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council, told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday.

"While this was not routine...the US would do the same thing if Iranian boats had mechanical problems and were in US territorial waters," he said of the custody.

Republicans cry foul

Officials told AP the sailors were part of Riverine Squadron 1 based in San Diego and were deployed to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain. When the US lost contact with the boats, ships attached to the USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier strike group began searching the area, along with aircraft flying off the Truman, they said.

A radio signal from one of the boats showed that they were on Farsi Island, setting off efforts to contact the Iranians.

The Riverine boats are not considered high-tech and don’t contain any sensitive equipment, so there were no concerns about the Iranians gaining access to the crafts.

Republican lawmakers seized on the incident as further evidence that Iran is not to be trusted. The House was scheduled to vote Wednesday on Republican-backed legislation that would give Congress greater oversight of the landmark Iran nuclear agreement, which Republicans have derided as a victory for Tehran.

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said it was “unthinkable that the administration would lift sanctions and permit Iran to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement, even as the regime brazenly violates its international obligations and rushes to develop the ballistic missile capability to deliver a potential nuclear weapon to the United States".

The incident came on the heels of a case in late December when Iran launched a rocket test near US warships and boats passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Meanwhile, Iran was expected to satisfy the terms of last summer’s nuclear deal in the coming days. Once the UN nuclear agency confirms Iran’s actions to roll back its programme, the United States and other Western powers are obliged to suspend wide-ranging oil, trade and financial sanctions on Tehran. Kerry recently said the deal’s implementation was “days away”.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2016-01-12

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