WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at least five times Tuesday by telephone with his Iranian counterpart in intense diplomacy that led to the release early Wednesday of 10 American sailors who were picked up and detained overnight when their small ships strayed into Iranian waters the day before.
Rapid resolution of the incident appeared to end a potential flash point just as Iran and world powers moved toward implementation of a nuclear deal expected within the next few days.
Kerry thanked Iran for cooperating in the release.
"It is clear that today this kind of issue was able to be peacefully resolved, and efficiently resolved, and that is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure and strong," Kerry said.
In his initial call with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Tuesday, Kerry was assured that the sailors would quickly be set free, a senior State Department official said. Their last call, to confirm the release, took place after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
The official attributed resolution of the incident to the "very direct line of communication at a senior level" that was established during the nuclear negotiations.
The Pentagon said that the sailors, who were taken to the U.S. naval base in Bahrain, across the Persian Gulf from Iran, were being debriefed about their experience.
Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a 5th Fleet spokesman, said the priority would be determining "how exactly these sailors found themselves in Iran."
In Washington, a defense official said the Navy had ruled out engine or propulsion failure as the reason the boats entered Iranian waters. Navigation problems, due either to human or mechanical failure, could not be ruled out, the official said.
The Revolutionary Guard released images of the U.S. sailors before their release, showing them sitting on the floor of a room. State TV later released more video and photos of the Americans apparently surrendering on their knees, their hands behind their head.
"After determining that their entry into Iran's territorial waters was not intentional, and their apology, the detained American sailors were released in international waters," the Guard said.
Iranian TV ran video of one of the sailors apologizing for the intrusion into Iranian waters.
"It was a mistake. That was our fault and we apologize for our mistake," the unidentified sailor is shown saying in English.
Earlier Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden denied that the United States made an apology.
"There's nothing to apologize for," Biden said. "When you have a problem with the boat, you apologize the boat had a problem? No, and there was no looking for any apology. This was just standard nautical practice."
The U.S. Central Command later said: "The video appears to be authentic, but we cannot speak to the conditions of the situation or what the crew was experiencing at the time."
"What matters most right now, however, is that our sailors are back safely," it added.
The Navy declined to provide details on the identities of the 10 sailors.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
House will vote again on greater oversight of Iran deal
WASHINGTON — Hours after Iran's release of U.S. sailors, the House on Wednesday approved GOP-backed legislation that would give Congress greater oversight of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran.
The vote was 191-106, well short of the number needed to override a veto. Speaker Paul Ryan, determined to keep the House on schedule, had the vote gaveled to a close even though 137 lawmakers hadn't voted. Faced with frustrated members, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., later vacated the vote — essentially rendering it null and void — and scheduled another one for Jan. 26.
— The Associated Press