Washington (Reuters), Jan 14: Iran freed 10 U.S. sailors on Wednesday, a day after detaining them aboard two U.S. Navy patrol boats in the Gulf, bringing a swift end to an incident that had rattled nerves just before the expected implementation of a landmark nuclear accord.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it had released the sailors after determining they had entered Iranian territorial waters by mistake. IRGC Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi said the boats had strayed because of a broken navigation system.
There were no indications the sailors were harmed while in Iranian custody, the Pentagon said. The quick resolution contrasted with previous cases in which British servicemen were held considerably longer, in one case nearly two weeks.
Iran expects the U.N. nuclear watchdog to confirm on Friday it has curtailed its nuclear program, paving the way for the unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian assets and an end to bans that have crippled oil exports.
In a statement carried by state television, the IRGC said the sailors were released in international waters after they apologized.
Iranian state television later released footage of one of the detained men, identified as a U.S. Navy commander, apologizing for the incident.
“It was a mistake, that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake,” the sailor said on IRIB state TV.
A Pentagon spokesman, Commander Gary Ross, said the video appeared to be authentic, “but we cannot speak to the conditions of the situation or what the crew was experiencing at the time.”
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Clearly this staged video exhibits a sailor making an apology in an unknown context as an effort to defuse a tense situation and protect his crew.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden earlier rejected reports that Washington itself had offered Iran an apology over the incident.
The incident spilled over into the U.S. presidential campaign, where Republicans are critical of the nuclear deal Iran forged with six world powers and due to take effect soon.
At a campaign rally, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who accuses President Barack Obama of being weak on foreign policy, described the detention of the sailors as “an indication of where the hell we’re going”.
A carefully worded Pentagon statement did not explain how the sailors and their two riverine command boats ended up being detained by Iran, saying only that “the Navy will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors’ presence in Iran”.
The sailors were later taken ashore by U.S. Navy aircraft, while other sailors took charge of the boats and headed towards Bahrain, their original destination.
A senior U.S. defense official said the circumstances surrounding the incident were still not entirely clear. “We haven’t been able to fully debrief the sailors,” the official said.
The sailors were headed to a U.S. military facility in Qatar. Another defense official said the debriefings would begin on Thursday after medical and psychological tests of the sailors on Wednesday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he appreciated “the timely way in which this situation was resolved”. He thanked Secretary of State John Kerry for engaging with Iran to secure the sailors’ swift return.
Kerry spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at least five times by phone, U.S. and Iranian officials said.