The Cable

Kerry After Sailors Released: Thanks, Tehran

Secretary of State John Kerry began a wide-ranging speech on foreign policy Wednesday with a special shout out to the Iranian government for returning 10 American sailors even as Tehran and Washington quibbled over whether an apology was issued over the incident.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, January 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, January 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry began a wide-ranging speech on foreign policy Wednesday with a special shout out to the Iranian government for returning 10 American sailors even as Tehran and Washington quibbled over whether an apology was issued over the incident.

“I’m appreciative for the quick and appropriate response of the Iranian authorities,” Kerry said during a speech at the National Defense University. “All indications suggest or tell us that our sailors were well taken care of — provided with blankets and food and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today.”

Iran released the sailors after concluding that the two small American boats entered Iranian waters accidentally. Washington, according to a statement by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, “extended an apology.”

But the Obama administration denied on Wednesday that it had ever said it was sorry.

“Absolutely ZERO truth to rumors that @JohnKerry apologized to Iran over sailors,” tweeted State Department spokesman John Kirby. “Nothing to apologize for.”

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Iran handed the sailors over quickly — within 24 hours — as a result of the close ties developed between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal.

On Tuesday, Kerry’s team first learned that the sailors had been detained about an hour before a scheduled call between Kerry and Zarif. Prior to the call, Kerry coordinated with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two foreign ministers held at least five phone calls in the span of 10 hours, according to the official, in order to pacify the situation.

Kerry, in his remarks on Wednesday, said the quick return of U.S. sailors demonstrated the benefits of the Obama administration’s improved relations with Tehran.

“I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” said Kerry. “In fact, it is clear that today, this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved and efficiently resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe secure and strong.”

Kerry’s remarks came as Iran’s state-run Press TV broadcast video of the U.S. sailors kneeling on an unidentified ship with their hands behind their backs.

Iranian officials interrogated the sailors on Wednesday morning to assess whether they “entered Iranian waters intentionally on an intelligence mission” before freeing them, according to Iranian state media.

Initial indicators are that one of the U.S. boats experienced mechanical difficulties and the other craft stayed near its side as it drifted into Iranian waters. U.S. and Iranian vessels frequently come in contact in the waters near Faris Island. The Pentagon says it will launch a full investigation.

Iran’s foreign ministry has also called on the United States to apologize for the “encroachment” of the U.S. ships, but no such statement appeared to be forthcoming. IRGC Navy commander Adm. Ali Fadevi broadly criticized the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, saying such activities “disturbed the security of the area.”

This post has been updated. 

Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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