Iran's Revolutionary Guards detained 10 US sailors and seized two US Navy boats in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, accusing them of "snooping around" in Iranian territorial waters. Tehran told the US that the crew members — nine men and one woman — would be promptly returned, and a handoff is reportedly scheduled to occur early Wednesday morning.
"We have received assurances from the Iranians that our sailors are safe and that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told CNN.
Plans are in place for Iran to return the sailors to a US Navy vessel in international waters early Wednesday, after they were taken into custody while traveling from Kuwait to Bahrain, a US defense official said late Tuesday.
The official said it was deemed safer to carry out the exchange in daylight. The plans call for Iran to bring the sailors to international waters, where they will be transferred to a vessel from the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group, the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
According to Iran's semi-official Fars news agency, "The Revolutionary Guards naval forces seized the American boats two kilometers inside Iranian territorial waters while they were snooping around."
A US official said the sailors were on board two 38-foot, high-speed vessels called riverine patrol boats, which the US Navy and Marines use to patrol rivers and shorelines. The official suggested that mechanical issues may have disabled one of the boats, leading to a situation in which both ships drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assured US Secretary of State John Kerry that the US sailors would be allowed to continue their journey promptly, another US official said.
'We have received assurances from the Iranians that our sailors are safe and that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly.'
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed it seized the boats and said the sailors were safe and well. It said France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was near the seized US boats.
While both sides appeared eager not to let the incident escalate further, it came at a delicate time for US-Iranian relations. Iran and six world powers forged a landmark nuclear accord last July. Formal implementation of the accord could begin in days following steps Iran agreed to take to curb its nuclear activities.
It was the latest reported incident between US and Iranian forces in the Gulf in recent weeks.
The US Navy said late last month that an Iranian Revolutionary Guards vessel fired unguided rockets on December 26 near warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran denied the allegation.
It's also not the first time Iranian forces have detained Western sailors and marines.
In June 2004, Iran arrested six Royal Marines and two naval personnel — part of a US-led force in Iraq — for straying into its waters, stirring diplomatic tensions between the two. The eight were freed three days later.
In March 2007, Iranian forces seized 15 British servicemen — eight Royal Navy sailors and seven marines — in the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that separates Iran and Iraq, triggering a diplomatic crisis at a time of heightened tensions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. They were held for 13 days.
In November 2009, Iranian naval vessels detained five Britons on a racing yacht en route from Bahrain to Dubai. They were released a week later.
News of the incident broke as US President Barack Obama prepared to make his final State of the Union address. Obama made the Iran accord a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and Republicans vying to succeed him have assailed him over the deal.
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