Off Course

Detained U.S. Navy Sailors Will Spend at Least a Day in Iranian Custody

The crew of two U.S. Navy boats that apparently strayed into Iranian waters are ‘safe’—but they’ll be held through Wednesday, defense officials say.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Ten U.S. sailors taken into Iranian custody will be held through Wednesday, senior defense officials tell The Daily Beast.

Two U.S. Navy boats in the Persian Gulf were seized by Iran when, according to Tehran, the vessels entered its territorial waters. The U.S. military could not say whether Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps naval forces were involved or another Iranian naval unit. The Pentagon also could not say whether a warning shot was fired or how exactly the Iranians took custody of the sailors.

The incident began Tuesday afternoon when the U.S. military lost contact with two Riverine boats and sought to contact them. Defense officials said one boat suffered a mechanical failure, which may have included navigation issues.

The official Iranian news agency, Fars, is reporting that Iran believes the vessels purposely entered Iranian naval waters and that the crew had been arrested. The “violating boats were 2 kilometres [1.2 miles] inside Iranian territory,” Fars reported.

The Pentagon said the Iranians promised to allow the U.S. Navy boats to continue on their route from Kuwait to Bahrain “promptly” but could not say when that could happen. The sailors are now on Farsi Island, according to defense officials.

Secretary of State John Kerry made a call to his Iranian counterpart, who gave assurance that the issue would be resolved in short order. Kerry was with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the time. The sailors were to be held until Wednesday for safety reasons, as it was the middle of the night on Farsi Island. It is unclear whether the U.S. military has begun contacting the families of the sailors, but White House press secretary Josh Earnest told CNN: “Our sailors are safe.”

The Revolutionary Guards’ Navy has been involved in these sorts of engagements with foreign countries in the past. In a 2004 incident, eight sailors and British Royal Marines were taken in the Persian Gulf while training personnel. Another similar incident happened in 2007.

U.S. Navy vessels were threatened by IRGC boats in a 2008 incident, during which time an alleged radio transmission from an Iranian boat warned that the U.S. ships would “explode in a couple of minutes.” Iranian officials later downplayed the incidents and denied sending the transmission.

On Tuesday, U.S. defense officials were befuddled about how both vessels’ navigational systems failed to alert them that they were entering Iranian waters. Riverine patrol boats frequently are used in the narrow waters between Kuwait and Bahrain, as they are among the few able to make the journey safely.