Saturday 24 February 2018

Iran frees US sailors who 'strayed' into its territorial waters

A picture of the US sailors released by Iran.
A picture of the US sailors released by Iran.

David Blair in London

US Secretary of State John Kerry last night thanked Iran for a "peaceful, efficient" resolution of a crisis after 10 American sailors were released.

"I want to express my gratitude to the Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter," Mr Kerry said in a statement.

"That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong."

The Pentagon said: "The sailors departed Farsi Island aboard the two Riverine Command Boats (RCB) that they had been operating when they lost contact with the US Navy.

"The sailors were later transferred ashore by US Navy aircraft, while other sailors took charge of the RCBs and continued transiting toward Bahrain, the boats' original destination."

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it had freed the sailors after determining they had entered Iranian territorial waters by mistake. The sailors had been detained aboard two US Navy patrol boats in the Gulf on Tuesday.

"Our technical investigations showed two United States Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters inadvertently," the IRGC said in a statement carried by state television.

"They were released in inter- national waters after they apologised."

The Pentagon will investigate why the American sailors were in Iranian waters in the first place. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said he was hesitant to draw big lessons from the incident about the state of US-Iran relations.

But he said that open lines established recently were "extraordinarily important" in resolving situations such as the one in the crowded Persian Gulf. He added that Mr Kerry's relationship with Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif played a major role in this case.

Mr Kerry and Mr Zarif grew closer through the recent nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers, though President Barack Obama and Mr Kerry have said the nuclear deal was separate from other issues between the US and Iran.

Mr McDonough said the White House is very pleased to have the sailors "back with us". He added that that is "where they should have always been".

With the release of the American sailors, Iran's aim will be to send an important signal about how it does business.

There was a time when the regime would have revelled in the opportunity to hold Western military personnel and exacted a high price for their freedom.

When 15 British sailors were captured in the Gulf in 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government held them for 12 days. They were released amid great fanfare in a way that was designed to cause maximum embarrassment for Britain. This time, by contrast, the US personnel appear to have been freed after barely 24 hours.

Once, the Iranian regime would support the storming of embassies. Britain's mission in Tehran infamously suffered this treatment in November 2011. After Saudi Arabia's embassy was attacked on January 4, however, a raft of Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, immediately declared this was a mistake and promised to punish the perpetrators.

The intended message is clear: Iran has changed the way it deals with other countries. Illegal actions, such as capturing hostages or wrecking embassies, are no longer part of its modus operandi.

Why the change? In the coming weeks or even days, Iran is expected to complete the process of scaling back its nuclear programme in line with last year's agreement. As soon as the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified these steps, the Western powers will lift their nuclear-related sanctions.

At this delicate moment, Iran's leaders do not want an incident that could jeopardise the removal of sanctions. Hence their swift decision to defuse this episode and, apparently, release the sailors. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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