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Iran detains 10 US sailors: what we know

Sailors (not the ones taken into Iranian custody).
Sailors (not the ones taken into Iranian custody).
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. Tuesday evening, 10 US Navy sailors were taken into Iranian custody. They are currently being held on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf, home to a small Iranian Revolutionary Guards base.
  2. Fox News reports that the sailors, on two small boats, were traveling between US-friendly ports in Kuwait and Bahrain. US officials told the Associated Press that the ships experienced mechanical failures during their journey, which caused them to drift into Iranian territorial waters.
  3. According to official US statements and every independent media report, the sailors are not prisoners or hostages.
  4. Rather, the Iranians have detained them temporarily and are set to release them. CNN reports that voice communication has been established with the sailors and that Iran plans to release them in international waters Wednesday morning.

We have no evidence that this is Iranian aggression

Multiple statements from US officials to press say that the sailors' detention is only temporary. "We subsequently have been in communication with Iranian authorities, who have informed us of the safety and well-being of our personnel," a US official told CNN. "We have received assurances the sailors will promptly be allowed to continue their journey."

Reportedly, this was secured (at least in part) by a top-level conversation between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Kerry "personally engaged with Zarif on this issue to try to get to this outcome," a US official told the AP.

Based on these quotes and other publicly available information, the narrative of events looks to be as follows: Two US boats on a training mission experienced a mechanical failure, which caused them to drift into Iranian territory. The surprised Iranians picked them up and detained the US sailors while they figured out what the Americans were doing there. Once American officials told them what happened and demanded the sailors' release, the Iranians agreed to let them go.

Now, it's possible that US officials are lying, misinformed, or leaving out key information — which is certainly conceivable at this stage. It's also possible the Iranians may change their minds and start using the detained sailors as bargaining chips.

Moreover, the Iranians may hold the US sailors for a number of days before releasing them. The point would be to send a message. "In 2007, the [Revolutionary] Guard Navy held 15 British Navy personnel for 13 days, making the point that it is serious in protecting its sea borders," Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times' veteran Iran correspondent, tweeted.

It's also possible they're only being held a short time for safety reasons. "Likely reason US sailors are overnighting in Iran's custody: it's about 1:30 am there, dark, and they may have a damaged small boat," Politico's Michael Crowley tweeted. Statements from the White House seem to back this up.

Bottom line: based on what we know publicly, there is essentially zero reason to believe the Iranians intentionally provoked an incident with the United States (or vice versa). Moreover, there is no reason to believe the US sailors are being held indefinitely. Right now this all looks like a big misunderstanding that will be resolved in fairly short order.

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