WASHINGTON (AFP) – US officials were scrambling Tuesday to recover US Navy personnel who lost radio contact and were apprehended after straying into Iranian waters.
Senior US officials said they had received assurances from Tehran that the crews — take to Farsi island — would be allowed to sail onwards come first light.
But it appeared likely that the embarrassing crisis would last at least until after President Barack Obama s State of the Union address later Tuesday.
Secretary of State John Kerry called his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, with whom he struck the Iran nuclear deal.
Washington has no diplomatic relations with Tehran, but Kerry and Zarif forged a tie during the long negotiations for the pact and are in regular contact.
“He has a close relationship with foreign minister Zarif and that would be a natural point of contact,” White House communications director Jen Psaki told CNN.
“We have been in touch with the Iranians. We have been assured of their safety and that they will be able to move forward on their journey promptly,” she said.
“Obviously, any situation like this we take very seriously, and that s why we acted very quickly to get in touch and determine as much as we can.”
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one or both of the vessels — small patrol boats — may have had a “mechanical incident.”
Farsi Island lies in the Gulf, roughly midway between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and houses a base of Iran s Republican Guard Corps, which has its own naval units.
The tiny territory extends Iranian waters deep into one of the world s most important shipping lanes, an oil superhighway and potential military flashpoint.
“Earlier today, we lost contact with two small US naval craft en route from Kuwait to Bahrain,” a senior US administration official said.
American officials did not dispute that the vessels appeared to have been in Iranian territorial waters when they were intercepted by Tehran s forces.
“At this early stage,” another senior administration official said, there is “nothing to indicate that” Iran had committed a hostile act.
Ben Rhodes, a top national security aide for Obama, said the administration was “hopeful we will be able to resolve the issue.”
Obama is expected to use his much-heralded final State of the Union address to burnish his legacy, hailing, among other things, the nuclear deal with Iran.
The deal foresees the Islamic republic scaling back its nuclear program to put a bomb outside its immediate reach in exchange for relief from international sanctions.
The deal is to be implemented very soon — Kerry has said “in the coming days” — but has been criticized by Obama s US opponents as too soft on Tehran.
Psaki refused to comment on whether the naval incident could derail the nuclear deal at the 11th hour, and said Obama had no plans to address it in his speech.
The situation has been further complicated in the New Year by an angry breakdown in relations between Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia, inflaming regional tensions.
Iran s hardline Revolutionary Guard often takes a tough approach to perceived and real territorial violations in what it considers the “Persian Gulf.”
Last year, Iranian patrol boats seized the Maersk Tigris, a cargo ship sailing under the Marshall Islands flag, which meant it was under US protection.
And in March 2007, Iranian patrols captured 15 British Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel, interrogated them and held them for 13 days before releasing them.