(CNSNews.com) – A spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said Thursday it was “disgusted by the exploitation of our sailors in Iranian propaganda,” after the regime’s state television released images of a U.S. Navy sailor apparently in tears after he and nine others were detained overnight in the Persian Gulf last month.
“As Secretary [of State John] Kerry has said, we are disgusted by the exploitation of our sailors in Iranian propaganda,” said Cmdr. Kevin Stephens in response to queries about the footage. “It’s outrageous and unacceptable that our sailors were held at gunpoint and detained.”
“We are grateful diplomacy worked at the end of the day, but it would never have come to that had the Iranian maritime forces involved behaved professionally and responsibly,” he said.
The clip aired by the IRIB state broadcaster also included images released earlier, showing the sailors on their knees at gunpoint, after their riverine command boats (RCBs) entered Iran’s territorial waters on January 12. They were released about 15 hours later, after Kerry took up the matter with his Iranian counterpart.
Last week the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy threatened to release images of the incident that would be even more embarrassing to the U.S. than those broadcast earlier.
The clip that aired Wednesday also reprised earlier footage of one of the sailors apologizing for unintentionally entering Iranian waters, and a segment showing the one female among the sailors, her hair covered by a scarf, being asked about the Iranians’ behavior towards them. “It was good,” she replies.
In a speech at the National Defense University on January 13, Kerry said he was “appreciative for the quick and appropriate response of the Iranian authorities.”
“All indications suggest or tell us that our sailors were well taken care of, provided with blankets and food and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today,” he said, adding that the outcome was “a testament to the critical role that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
Later, both Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter voiced their anger about the appearance of the images of the kneeling U.S. sailors.
Sailors ‘in distress’
Vice President Joe Biden suggested on January 13 that the IRGC Navy had come to the aid of U.S. sailors “in distress.”
“One of the boats had engine failure, drifted into Iranian waters,” he told CBS News. “The Iranians picked up both boats, as we have picked up Iranian boats that needed to be rescued, and took them to – I’m not sure exactly where, I don’t want to misspeak here – and realized they were there in distress and said they would release them and released them, you know, like ordinary nations would do.”
Fifth Fleet spokesman Stephens on Thursday picked up on the sailors in distress issue, criticizing the Iranians for not meeting their responsibilities in such cases.
“Professional mariners understand that it is a duty and obligation to assist other mariners who suffer mechanical problems or who find themselves off track at sea,” he said. “In fact, our Navy has assisted Iranian mariners in distress in the Gulf region seven times since 2012.”
“The responsible action for the Iranians to have taken upon discovering our RCBs in their waters would have been to calmly and peacefully direct our RCBs out of their territorial waters or offer assistance if the apparent mechanical issues in one of the boats prevented them from departing immediately,” Stephens said.
He said it remained unclear why the RCBs entered Iranian waters or if the crews knew their exact location, although “it appears at this point that the entry of our sailors into Iranian territorial waters may have been inadvertent.”
A Navy investigation into the incident is underway, and Stephens said the results would be made public once it is completed.
Stephens also pointed out that under international law, ships have the right to conduct “innocent passage” in the territorial seas of coastal nations while traveling between locations.
“If Iran believed the RCBs were not in innocent passage in the Iranian territorial sea, the Law of the Sea Convention and customary international law provide that Iran could have simply directed the vessels to immediately depart Iranian waters,” he said.
“Iran could also have engaged diplomatically. It did not have the right under international law to detain and inspect the vessels or to detain the crews.”
Eleven days after the sailors were released Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the incident “an act of God” and later awarded medals to the IRGC Navy’s commander and the personnel involved.