WASHINGTON — Ten American sailors are in Iranian custody after two small U.S. naval craft apparently briefly entered Iranian territorial waters, a U.S. senior defense official said Tuesday.
The official, however, expects the situation to be resolved quickly. A senior administration official said there is nothing to indicate this was anything hostile on the part of any entity in Iran, adding that the U.S. has received high-level assurances that the sailors will be released promptly.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told CNN’s Jake Tapper that President Barack Obama will be in touch with members of Congress about the incident.
“Certainly, everybody should be aware of the fact we have been in touch with the Iranians and they have assured us that our sailors are safe and that they’ll be allowed to continue their journey promptly,” Earnest said.
A U.S. official said the sailors may be spending the night in Iran, and it’s not expected that they would depart until after daylight.
A senior administration official told CNN that the U.S. lost contact with the two ships, which were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain.
“We subsequently have been in communication with Iranian authorities, who have informed us of the safety and well-being of our personnel,” the senior administration official said. “We have received assurances the sailors will promptly be allowed to continue their journey.”
The U.S. is uncertain whether the vessels, which were sailing near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, intentionally entered Iranian waters, and the senior defense official said no distress call was made by the ships.
A U.S. official said that it is believed that the sailors were still pierside as of late Tuesday afternoon. Farsi Island is an area where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — which the semi-official Fars News agency said detained the service members — tends to operate, and they are much more aggressive than the Iranian Navy.
The official added that it is possible that one of the boats lost propulsion and drifted into Iranian waters.
The Fars News agency also reported that the American boats were equipped with three, 50-caliber machine guns. The boats crossed a little more than a mile into Iranian-patrolled waters, reported Fars, which cited information recorded on the GPS device of the American vessels and now in the hands of the IRGC.
Fars also reported that the “arrested” sailors were nine men and one woman.
“We’re aware. We’re working on it and we hope to resolve the situation,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told CNN.
Secretary of State John Kerry, called his Iranian counterpart to try to resolve the matter. Iranian representatives at the U.N. mission in New York had no comment.
The issue quickly became a discussion topic on the 2016 campaign trail.
“This is the latest manifestation of the weakness of Barack Obama, that every bad actor … views Obama as a laughingstock,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum demanded the sailors’ immediate return.
“WH says our sailors are being given courtesies? This is feckless. WH is endangering our troops. Demand their return NOW!” he tweeted.
Impact on nuclear deal
The arrest of the sailors came days before a deal agreed between Iran and world powers to freeze its nuclear program is expected to go into force. The IRGC is typically seen as a hardline opponent of President Hassan Rouhani’s more moderate government, which engineered the deal but has had little choice to fall in behind it after the negotiations were endorsed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The IGRC, which is largely responsible for Iran’s nuclear research, is also expected to benefit financially from the lifting of sanctions under the pact in return for a halting of Tehran’s nuclear program. But the lifting of sanctions is what is due to begin with the pending implementation, and this incident could throw a wrench in the works.
The capture of the Navy sailors was quickly seized on by U.S. opponents of the nuclear deal as the latest in a series of provocations by Tehran since the deal was agreed, which include aggressive attempts to wield power in its immediate neighborhood and ballistic missile tests that the United Nations charged violated a Security Council resolution.
“This kind of openly hostile action is not surprising. It’s exactly what I and so many others predicted when President Obama was negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran — that it would embolden their aggression towards the United States and our allies in the region,” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
Cotton also pointed to the timing of the seizure as coming right before Obama delivers the State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night.
“It’s humiliating to Barack Obama and therefore the United States to have American sailors held hostage during his final State of the Union,” Cotton said.
The rising tensions between Iran and other regional powers and the United States also may play into a volatile political environment inside the country ahead of crucial elections in the Islamic Republic next month for the country’s parliament, the Majlis, and a powerful body called the Assembly of Experts that has the power to appoint the supreme leader.