Iranian military forces captured and detained two United States Navy patrol ships and their crew on Tuesday evening as they conducted a training mission in the Persian Gulf.
Ten American sailors – nine men and one woman – were arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps after their boat reportedly strayed into the country’s territorial waters.
“We have been in contact with Iran and have received assurances that the crew and the vessels will be returned promptly,” said Peter Cook, a Pentagon spokesman.
Officials later said they were confident the crew members would be released on Wednesday.
Sensitive time, hours before Barack Obama was due to give his final State of the Union address and as Iran makes progress towards meeting the terms of last year’s nuclear deal.
American officials said they lost contact with the two boats while they travelled between Kuwait and Bahrain.
One developed a mechanical fault leading them to drift into Iranian territorial waters around Farsi Island.
John Kerry, the secretary of state held an urgent phone conversation with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, in which he was told that the American sailors would be soon released and allowed to continue their journey, according to a White House official.
Josh Earnest, Barack Obama’s spokesman, said the ten sailors had not been harmed: “We’ve received assurances from the Iranians both that our sailors are safe, that they’re being afforded the proper courtesy that you’d expect, and we’ve also most importantly received assurances that they’ll be allowed to continue their journey promptly.”
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency used far more provocative language in describing the incident.
“The Revolutionary Guards naval forces seized the American boats two kilometers inside Iranian territorial waters while they were snooping around,” it said, adding that GPS equipment would prove the Americans had been spying.
The incident will raise question about whether hardliners are trying to derail a period of warming relations between Iran and the US.
The two countries have sought rapprochement through the passing of the nuclear deal, a landmark agreement that President Obama had hoped would become a crowning foreign policy achievement that would form a key part of his legacy.
But the success of the deal has been mired by increasing tensions with certain factions of the Iranian government.