USA - IRAN

Tehran demands apology after US sailors 'violate' Iranian waters

AFP PHOTO/ US NAVY/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zane Ecklun | This US Navy photo released January 12, 2016, shows the type of riverine command boat apprehended by Iran on Tuesday.
4 min

Iran has called for Washington to apologise after 10 US sailors were arrested on Tuesday for “violating” its waters. Tehran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard also cast doubt on reports of their prompt release.

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"Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in touch with US Secretary of State Kerry," the Guard's naval commander, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, said in an interview broadcast live on state television.

"Zarif took a firm stance as the sailors had violated Iran's territorial waters and asked the United States for an apology," Fadavi said.

US officials had earlier sounded optimistic that the sailors – nine men and a woman – would be transferred to a US ship on Wednesday morning local time.

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.

Hours later, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards dismissed talk of their prompt release as speculation.

"What others say about the sailors' prompt release is their speculation, and I don't confirm or deny it," Ramazan Sharif said in an interview with Tasnim news.

"If, during the interrogation, we find out that they were on an intelligence gathering mission, we will treat them differently," he added.

Channel of communication

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.

Kerry, who forged a personal relationship with his Iranian counterpart through three years of nuclear negotiations, called Zarif immediately on learning of the incident, according to a senior US official.

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What impact on Iranian nuclear deal?

"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, REUTERS)

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