13 Jan 2016

Iran frees American sailors who strayed into its waters

The Iranian military releases US Navy personnel on Wednesday morning after detaining them when two American boats strayed into Iranian waters while patrolling in the Gulf.

Iranian speedboats in the Persian Gulf (Getty)

A US official confirmed the crew members had been set free.

The incident has heightened tension between the US and the Shia Muslim regional power just as a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme is due to be implemented.

The US and other global powers have agreed to drop economic sanctions against Tehran in return for measures designed to prevent Iran developing atomic weapons.

Iran’s navy detained ten US sailors on Tuesday. The country’s armed forces chief, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, said the incident was a show of Iranian strength to “troublemakers” in the US Congress, which has sought to put pressure on Iran after the nuclear deal.

The Revolutionary Guards – a staunchly Islamic branch of the Iranian military with enormous power – said the boats were “snooping” in Iranian territory and said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had demanded an apology from Washington.

A Guards spokesman, Ramazan Sharif, dismissed US statements by US officials that the Navy personnel would be released quickly, saying the sailors would be interrogated on nearby Farsi island and “if, during the interrogation, we find out that they were on an intelligence-gathering mission, we will treat them differently”.

The rhetoric was toned down markedly later after senior Iranian officers appeared to accept that a technical fault had led the US vessels to stray into Iranian waters accidentally.

Our investigations show the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters due to a broken navigation system. Ali Fadavi

Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi was quoted as saying “Our investigations show the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters due to a broken navigation system.

“The final order will be issued soon and they will probably be released.”

Conservatives in both the US and Iran are unhappy with the nuclear deal, which is bitterly opposed by America’s ally Israel.

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who frequently accuses the Obama administration of being weak on foreign policy, described the incident as “an indication of where the hell we’re going”.

The Revolutionary Guards are in charge of defending Iran’s borders, and they are highly suspicious of US military activity near Iranian territory.

The organisation frequently stages wargames in the Gulf, which divides Iran from its rival Saudi Arabia and a US naval base in Bahrain.

In December last year, the US Navy said a Guards ship had fired rockets near an American aircraft carrier in the Straits of Hormuz, a key oil shipping route. Irand denied the accusation.

In April 2015, the Guards seized a container ship belonging to the shipping giant Maersk in the Gulf over a legal dispute with the company. The
ship and its 24 crew members were released after 10 days.

In 2004 Iran seized six Royal Marines and two sailors after accusing British boats of straying too close to the Iranian coast in bad weather.

The men appeared blindfolded on Iranian TV and said they were forced to undergo a mock execution before being released three days later.

In 2007 the Iranian military seized 15 Royal Navy personnel off the Iran/Iraq border and held them for 13 days.