Iran has said the US should apologise after the crews of two US Navy boats were detained by Revolutionary Guards for “violating” Iran’s waters in the Gulf.
Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, said in an interview broadcast live on state television that foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had taken a “firm stance” on the issue when contacting US secretary of state John Kerry.
Earlier, US officials said they had received assurances from Tehran that the crew of two small US navy ships in Iranian custody would soon be allowed to continue their journey. Fadavi was quoted by the Tasnim news agency as saying “The final order will be issued soon and they will probably be released.”
Fadavi blamed the incident on the American navigation system. “Investigation shows that [the] entry of American sailors into Iran’s territorial waters was due to mechanical problems in their navigation system and that issue is being resolved,” he said.
The two small craft briefly went missing on Tuesday after transiting the Gulf from Kuwait to Bahrain. The Pentagon said the crews ended up in Iranian custody, sparking immediate fears of escalating tensions during a week when Iran is expected to receive the first wave of sanctions relief from the landmark nuclear accords.
Plans were in place for Iran to return the crew to a US Navy vessel in international waters early on Wednesday, during daylight hours when it would be safer, a US defense official told the Associated Press. The exchange has reportedly been set for 10.30am local time (7am GMT).
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that 10 Americans – including one woman – were arrested by the naval forces of the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guards after entering Iranian waters.
Fars said the two American boats were 2km inside Iranian waters when they were detained close to Farsi island, which is home to a Revolutionary Guards base.
The agency claimed GPS data on the American ships – reported to be on a training mission – also indicated they were on the Iranian side. Pentagon officials told the Associated Press the two boats drifted into Iranian waters after facing mechanical problems. Fars reported the Americans were carrying semi-heavy weaponry on board their craft.
Late on Tuesday the Guards issued a statement saying “10 armed American marines” had been arrested in Iranian waters but made no comment on any immediate plans to release them.
“The American crew consisted of nine men and one woman … currently held in good health in a safe area,” read a short statement published on Sepah News, the Guards’ official news website.
The episode comes amid heightened regional tensions, and only hours before Barack Obama is set to deliver his final State of the Union address.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio reacted swiftly to the reports, calling on Iran to release the US sailors and navy boats immediately.
“If they are not immediately released, and the boats are not immediately released, then we know something else is at play here,” Rubio said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday.
He added that the nuclear accord with Iran had led to “a continued pattern of provocation” under Obama. “Iran is testing the boundaries of this administration’s resolve. And they know the boundaries are pretty wide and this administration is willing to let them get away with many things,” Rubio said.
Paul Ryan, House speaker and the top Republican in Washington, withheld judgment, saying in a statement: “Our top priority is the safety and security of our servicemembers detained by Iran.
“I am closely monitoring the situation, and I hope the president will soon update the American people. As we gather tonight for the State of the Union, let us pause to thank all the brave men and women around the world working to protect this great country.”
A US defense department official played down the incident, saying the Iranians had sent indications of the “safety and wellbeing” of the sailors.
“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 press secretary Josh Earnest told CNN.
Pentagon and Navy officials did not identify the naval craft, the number of detained sailors, their mission or a timetable for their release.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards patrol Iranian waters in the Gulf, especially near the strait of Hormuz, a vital passageway where a fifth of the world’s oil passes in tankers.
The Iranian and US navies have routine professional exchanges but there have been incidents of heightened tension: notably in 2007, they captured 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines during a maritime inspection near Iraq and held them for 13 days in a disputed episode that drew the world’s attention. It remains unclear if the circumstances of Tuesday’s encounter are similar.
In December, the US accused Revolutionary Guards vessels of firing several unguided rockets near US warships including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the strait of Hormuz. The US later released video it said showed the incident.
Within Iran, there is some concern over the conduct of the hardline Revolutionary Guards at a time when the moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani is trying to mend relations with the international community following last year’s nuclear deal with the US and five other world powers.
Some moderate Iranians fear that the Guards, who are suspicious of Rouhani’s reconciliatory approach towards the west, might sabotage the relaxation of ties by creating tensions at this critical time.
The Revolutionary Guards are controlled directly by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Rouhani’s government does not have any control over their behaviour internally or externally.
Iran is believed to be only days away from the so-called implementation day, when the International Atomic Energy Authority will verify that Tehran has taken all the necessary steps under the nuclear accord for the west to lift economic sanctions.
Rouhani is pushing efforts to speed up implementation of the deal to bring about tangible relief from sanctions before parliamentary elections in February. Hardliners are worried about how such an event would boost Rouhani’s profile just before the election period.
Once Iran finishes swapping the core of a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak with cement, they will receive an influx of cash under the July deal. But deep-seated acrimony between Washington and Tehran has hardly ebbed.
The US is expected to launch a different series of sanctions on Iran following its recent ballistic missile tests, which are outside the scope of the nuclear deal but violate a UN security council prohibition.
“This year we set the tone for what Iran expects of our behavior and we need to demonstrate that we are watching them like a hawk and that when they take steps that violate our sense of priorities and values in the region that we will take action against them,” Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said Tuesday.(Spencer Ackerman, Saeed Kamali Dehghan,Sabrina Siddiqui)
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