Release of US sailors by Iran reflects less tense ties

The US crew members of two patrol boats were detained on Tuesday, but were released less than 24 hours later.
The US crew members of two patrol boats were detained on Tuesday, but were released less than 24 hours later.PHOTO: REUTERS

Kerry says swift resolution of incident due to nearly daily communication with Iran

TEHERAN • Iran's release of 10 United States Navy sailors on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after they were detained on the Persian Gulf, is being hailed in both countries as a sign that their relations have evolved since the signing of a nuclear accord last year.

US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Iranians "for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter" and suggested in a statement that the quick resolution of the issue was a product of the nearly daily back-and-forth that now takes place between Washington and Teheran after three decades of hostility and stony silence.

In an appearance later on Wednesday at the National Defence University in Washington, Mr Kerry said his focus on diplomacy with a country "we hadn't talked to for 35 years" before the nuclear negotiations had paid off.

"These are always situations that as everybody knows, if not properly handled, can get out of control," he said. "We can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago."

The crew members of two patrol boats were detained on Tuesday after what Iranian state news media described as "trespassing" in Iranian waters near a major naval base. Similar episodes in the past, like the seizure of British marines in 2007, had developed into prolonged stand-offs.

This time was different. The Pentagon and the State Department initially said one of the boats had experienced mechanical problems en route to Bahrain from Kuwait in a routine mission on Tuesday, and that the Iranians appeared to have accepted the explanation. On Wednesday, however, after the crew members and boats were returned, defence officials said they no longer believed that mechanical problems were the cause, noting that both boats returned to US custody under their own power.

Defence officials said they were still trying to untangle the chain of events that led to the episode. Of particular note, they said, was the question of how the military lost contact with not one, but two boats. Several officials noted that the crew members were relatively young, junior enlisted sailors. For now, questions about the incident itself seemed secondary to how it was resolved.

While the countries still have a long way to go before normalising relations, analysts say a less charged atmosphere that allowed the speedy resolution is a reflection of changing priorities in Teheran and Washington.

"The top leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not looking for any tension with America," said Mr Nader Karimi Joni, a journalist aligned with Iran's reformists who once served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he added, the "whole system sought tension". He continued: "Now, things have changed. Both sides, America and Iran, are in direct contact and they seek detente. Currently there is no need for anti-Americanism."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Release of US sailors reflects less tense ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe