The Obama administration said today that no apology was made to Iran over the two U.S. boats that Tehran said drifted into territorial waters, insisting that video showing one of the captured sailors apologizing must have been made under duress.
Yet at the same time, the administration claimed that the encounter wasn’t hostile and the sailors were treated well.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One today that he didn’t know if President Obama had seen the video released by Iran of U.S. sailors kneeling with their hands behind their heads on a boat deck.
“I’m not aware that the prospect of the United States issuing a formal apology was ever discussed. It certainly did not occur,” Earnest said.
Iran’s story was different. The semi-official Fars News Agency reported that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. needed to apologize before the sailors were released. According to a statement from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, “the Americans have extended an apology,” Fars said.
Zarif tweeted today: “Happy to see dialog and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the
#sailors episode. Let’s learn from this latest example.”
IRGC Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi then said “the U.S. Navy and a U.S. aircraft carrier showed unprofessional behavior for about 40 minutes and made some moves in the air and the sea in the region” as the sailors were being held.
“But calm was restored to the region with the timely action of the IRGC forces and came under our 100 percent control,” said Fadavi, who also described the reaction as “the USS Truman Aircraft carrier showed unprofessional moves for 40 minutes after the detention of the trespassers, while we were highly prepared with our coast-to-sea missiles, missile-launching speedboats and our numerous capabilities.”
In the apology video released by Iran, one of the sailors stiffly takes responsibility for the U.S. entering Iranian waters, apologizes, and says their Iranian hosts have been “fantastic.”
Earnest said the Department of Defense was “gathering more information, so we can get a better picture of what exactly led to these individuals ending up — these sailors ending up in Iranian custody.”
“And we’re certainly going to want to understand more about how they were treated and what transpired while they were in the hands of the Iranians. So there’s not that much that I can say about that now, principally because we’re still understanding exactly what transpired,” he said.
Earnest said Obama did not include the sailors in his State of the Union address — which included just two sentences’ worth of Iran nuke deal bragging — because “at the White House we reached the conclusion that further elevating the situation by including it in the State of the Union address would not be the most effective way for us to assure the safe return of our sailors.”
“And I think the outcome, which is the release of the sailors just hours after the president completed his address is a pretty powerful endorsement of that strategy,” he said. “At this point, I would not have any reason to think that this incident would have an impact on the implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
In a foreign policy address at National Defense University today, Kerry thanked Iranian officials “for their cooperation and quick response.”
“These are always situations which, as everybody here knows, have an ability, if not properly guided, to get out of control. And I’m appreciative for the quick and appropriate response of the Iranian authorities,” Kerry said.
“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 added. “And I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago and, in fact, 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 that diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at the daily briefing that if their assessment of the incident changed after the sailors were debriefed “I think we would take appropriate action.”
“Our initial impression was that they were well treated,” Toner said, adding “there was no official U.S. apology given to the Iranians. I think that’s been a little bit of a canard or whatever out there in the press this morning that there was the impression given that there was some kind of apology. Categorically, there was not.”
Of the soldier who apologized on camera, that was “not an official U.S. government apology,” Toner said.
He called the incident “a testament to the lines of communication that were opened through those negotiations.”
“The fact that Secretary Kerry had a relationship with Foreign Minister Zarif, that he could pick up the phone and explain to him what our assessment was of what had happened and ask for his help and assistance in resolving the situation diplomatically and professionally – I think it does speak to that kind of relationship that they’re able to discuss matters now beyond the nuclear talks.”
Toner wouldn’t speak to the violation of the Geneva Conventions in the video of the U.S. prisoners. “I’m not able to give that kind of legal adjudication at this point,” he said. “I mean, in – generally speaking, you’re not supposed to show images of detained or prisoners of war, but again… we don’t know much about [the videos] other than they’re out there circulating right now.”