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Iran’s detention of U.S. sailors ends, but questions just beginning

FRAME GRAB: This frame grab from Tuesday, January 12, 2016 video by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency, shows detention of American Navy sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, Iran. The 10 U.S. Navy sailors detained by Iran after their two small boats allegedly drifted into Iranian territorial waters around one of Iran's Persian Gulf islands a day earlier have been freed, the United States and Iran said Wednesday. (IRIB News Agency via AP)
FRAME GRAB: This frame grab from Tuesday, January 12, 2016 video by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency, shows detention of American Navy sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, Iran. The 10 U.S. Navy sailors detained by Iran after their two small boats allegedly drifted into Iranian territorial waters around one of Iran's Persian Gulf islands a day earlier have been freed, the United States and Iran said Wednesday. (IRIB News Agency via AP) AP

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday defended the Obama administration’s handling of the brief detention of 10 U.S. sailors whose vessels had strayed into Iranian waters, an episode that critics of the Iran nuclear deal seized upon as proof that Tehran shouldn’t be trusted.

Iran released them after about 16 hours in custody, during which time the Americans were provided with food and blankets, but were4 also filmed in prisoner-style conditions, according to videos released by Iranian news agencies.

The U.S. sailors are shown in the videos with their hands up and one apologizes on camera, prompting questions of whether Iran had violated Geneva Convention codes for the treatment of detainees. U.S. officials say the Department of Defense is debriefing the sailors about the videos and that it would be premature to say whether any Geneva violation had been committed.

In the footage, filmed before the sailors were released on Wednesday, the sailor says: “It was a mistake. That was our fault and we apologize for our mistake.”

The sailor is not identified by name in the clip but the TV interviewer says he is the “commander” of the group seized by the Iranians. He is then asked if the sailors’ GPS had alerted them about the intrusion, to which he replies, “I believe so.”

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.”

Military regulations stipulate that a captured service member is required to give only “name, rank, service number and date of birth,” and they say that captives are to “evade answering further questions” to the utmost of their ability.

Pentagon officials said they hope to learn much more about the details through debriefing the sailors. Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said, “hopefully [the sailor] will be able to relay the story. … This guy may have been doing what he needed to do to release tensions.”

After the release of the Iranian videos, U.S. defense officials confirmed that one of the 10 sailors — seen in the videos wearing a headscarf — was a woman, but they provided no other information.

The Obama administration portrayed the outcome as a diplomatic victory; critics of the Iran nuclear deal considered the whole affair indicative of the risks in letting a longtime pariah back into the international fold.

“I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago,” Kerry said in remarks before a mostly military audience at National Defense University in Washington. “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.”

Much of the anger was directed at the perceived audacity of the move — seizing uniformed Americans and showing them subjugated on camera just as President Barack Obama touted the Iran deal as a foreign policy success in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. That deal, which offers Iran sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling key parts of its nuclear program, is to go into effect in “the coming days,” Kerry said.

The incident at sea wouldn’t delay implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, administration officials said.

A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity as per department protocol, said that Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talked by phone more than five times over the course of 10 hours, a demonstration of the close working relationship they’ve developed through the negotiations.

The official, like others across the administration, insisted that Kerry didn’t apologize to Zarif at any point, though Kerry did offer an explanation. He told Zarif that the sailors were in transit between Kuwait and Bahrain and had experienced some sort of mechanical failure. U.S. officials lost touch with the vessels, which ended up in Iranian waters, near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf.

“We did explain that this was basically a routine transit mission, that it had no way — had in no way intended to end up anywhere on Farsi Island or in Iranian territorial waters,” the official said.

The official said that in Kerry’s many conversations with Zarif, he focused on one main message: “If we were able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.”

The calls between Washington and Tehran continued into late Tuesday and it appeared that the matter would be resolved. Kerry and other Cabinet members involved in the Iranian incident attended the president’s State of the Union address. Kerry and Zarif spoke again after Obama’s address, the official said, because the “secretary wanted to check in and make sure that all indications remained that this was on track.”

At around 10:30 p.m. Washington time, the official said, “Foreign Minister Zarif assured him that everything he knew suggested that it was.”

Before daybreak in Washington, at about 3:45 a.m., Iranian boats escorted the sailors to a rendezvous point in the Persian Gulf where they boarded the USS Anzio.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post.

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