WASHINGTON — Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Admiral Ali Fadavi said on Iranian TV Wednesday that the 10 detained U.S. Navy crew members they are holding will be released “as soon as the IRGC receives proper orders.”
It was unclear what he meant by that statement. In Washington, U.S. officials said Iran planned to release the Americans Wednesday morning.
But late Tuesday night, the Reuters news agency reported that the Revolutionary Guards had dismissed talk of the prompt release of the Americans and that Tehran had asked Washington for an apology for “violating” Iran’s territorial waters.
Fadavi said the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf waters “disturbed the security of the area” and criticized the U.S. Navy maneuvers.
The American sailors were captured after their two small U.S. naval craft entered Iranian waters, according to U.S. defense officials.
There is nothing to indicate the capture was a hostile act on the part of Iran, a senior Obama administration official said. The source also said the U.S. has received high-level assurances that the sailors would be released promptly.
Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN’s Dana Bash on Tuesday that he expected the sailors to be released “very soon,” but would not be more specific.
What the ships were doing
The vessels were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain. U.S. officials aren’t sure whether they intentionally entered Iranian waters when they were sailing near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf,
A senior defense official said no distress call was made by the ships.
Another senior defense official told CNN the boats were in the area of Farsi Island for refueling, but it’s not clear whether they actually refueled — raising the possibility they ran out of power.
Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, reported that the boats were “rescued” by Iranian navy sailors.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke with Kerry on the phone and said a boat had a mechanical problem and accidentally strayed, according to a senior administration official. Zarif assured Kerry the sailors were being treated well and would be released.
U.S. contact made
The U.S. Navy has been able to speak with the captured sailors, a senior U.S. official told CNN.
The sailors — nine men and one women — said they expected to be released Wednesday morning.
The official said the plan was to meet the sailors in international waters after dawn, but did not say whether the two boats would be returned with the service members.
“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 said.
Impact on nuclear deal
The arrest of the sailors came days before the deal agreed to between Iran and world powers to freeze Tehran’s nuclear program is expected to go into force.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is largely responsible for Iran’s nuclear research, is 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 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. Other incidents include ballistic missile tests that the United Nations charged violated a Security Council resolution.
“This kind of openly hostile action is not surprising,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “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.”
But Earnest 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.”
In 2004, three British patrol boats were boarded and seized by Iranian security forces in the Shatt al Arab waterway, which divides Iraq and Iran. The crew of the three boats, including eight British sailors and marines, were blindfolded and paraded on Iranian state TV and held captive for three days.
In 2007, Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf and accused them of trespassing in Iranian territorial waters. Britain maintained that its service members never entered Iranian waters.
Those British service members were paraded before then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and critics said their apologies were extracted under duress. They were released after two weeks.
After the 2007 capture, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen said “we’ve got procedures in place which are very much designed to carry out the mission and protect the sailors who are there, and I would not expect any sailors to be able to be seized by the Iranian navy or the Iranian Republican Guard.”