Iran releases US Navy sailors after brief detention
WASHINGTON - Ten US Navy sailors held by Iran in the Gulf left Wednesday aboard the two vessels they were operating when they were picked up, the Pentagon said.
"There are no indications that the sailors were harmed during their brief detention," a statement said, adding: "The Navy will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors' presence in Iran."
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 the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters inadvertently," the IRGC said in a statement carried by state television. "They were released in international waters after they apologised," it added.
A dramatic series of events started with the sailors -- nine men and a woman -- being taken to Farsi Island after their two Navy patrol boats drifted into Iranian territory late on Tuesday.
US and Iranian officials scrambled to defuse the situation, which unfolded as Iran prepares to finally implement a nuclear deal with world powers aimed at ending the Islamic republic's long international isolation.
"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 Pentagon said.
"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."
The incident raised tensions between Iran and the United States, which, along with other world powers, reached a deal last year under which Iran will curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Some conservatives in both countries, enemies since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, have criticised the deal that is due to be implemented in the coming days.
Iran's armed forces chief, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, said the incident should demonstrate Iranian strength to "troublemakers" in the US Congress, which has sought to put pressure on Iran after the nuclear deal.
And at a presidential campaign rally in the United States, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who accuses President Barack Obama of being weak on foreign policy, described the incident as "an indication of where the hell we're going".
Attributing the boats' incursion into Iranian waters to a navigation error marked a de-escalation in rhetoric. Earlier, the Guards had said the boats were "snooping" in Iranian territory and said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had demanded an apology from Washington.
The IRGC, the Islamic Republic's praetorian guard, is highly suspicious of US military activity near Iran's borders and many senior officers suspect Washington of pursuing regime change in Tehran.
The Guards operate land and naval units separate to the regular armed forces and stage frequent wargames in the Gulf, which separates Iran from its regional rival Saudi Arabia and a US naval base in Bahrain.
Last month, the US Navy said an IRGC vessel fired unguided rockets near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Strait of Hormuz, a critical shipping route for crude oil that connects the Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Iran denied the vessel had done so.
In April 2015, the Guards seized a container ship belonging to Maersk, one of the world's major shipping lines, in the Gulf because of a legal dispute between the company and Iran. The ship and its 24 crew members were released after 10 days.
The Guards have also seized British servicemen on two occasions, in 2004 and 2007, and a civilian British yacht crew in 2009. On each occasion the sailors were released unharmed after several days.