- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Just hours before President Barack Obama delivers the final State of the Union speech of his presidency, two small U.S. naval vessels, along with 10 sailors, were detained by the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf.
The craft were sailing between Kuwait and Bahrain when the U.S. Navy “lost contact” with them, according to a defense official. The American boats apparently entered Iranian territorial waters near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, the official said. It’s unclear how they may have veered off course or if they were forced to do so by the Iranians. Officials at the Pentagon said there is no evidence that shots were fired during the incident.
There are indications that one of the American vessels had developed mechanical problems and the other vessel stayed by its side as it drifted into Iranian waters, according to military officials.
After losing contact with the craft, “we subsequently have been in communication with Iranian authorities, who have informed us of the safety and well-being of our personnel,” the official said. “We have received assurances the sailors will promptly be allowed to continue their journey.”
Tensions in the Persian Gulf have been high since a group of Iranian fast-attack craft fired unguided rockets near the U.S. carrier USS Harry S. Truman on Dec. 26. The boats, operated by the naval fleet of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, launched the rockets about 20 minutes after warning nearby vessels that a test would take place. Iran has denied the incident, saying U.S. claims amount to “psychological warfare.” The U.S. Navy later released footage of the incident.
In another move that has inflamed tensions, Iran recently unveiled what appears to be a second underground missile bunker, trumpeting images of the facility complete with Emad precision-guided missiles on state television. Washington says the missiles can carry nuclear warheads and violate a 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution. The video follows similar footage released in October of another underground missile depot.
At least so far, though, the Obama administration has said that it remains committed to the nuclear accord reached between Iran and world powers in July. The deal places strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for easing long-term economic sanctions. It appears as if Tehran so far has stayed within the bounds of the agreement, but it still must dismantle the core of its heavy-water reactor in Arak and decommission centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Late last year, after Iran breached a U.N. Security Council resolution by conducting two ballistic missile tests, U.S. lawmakers accused the White House of taking too long to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages