UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Briefing on the Release of United States Sailors by Iran

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
January 13, 2016

MODERATOR: Thanks so much and thanks everyone for joining us on such relatively short notice today. Look, we felt it would be helpful to give all of you a bit more context, a bit more background on the State Department's involvement in yesterday's incident involving the detention and then ultimately release of a group of U.S. sailors by Iran. And joining us to give us that context and answer some of your questions, just for your own purposes or your own information, is [Senior State Department Official], who will henceforth be known as a Senior State Department Official. So this is an on-background call and [Senior State Department Official] will be a Senior State Department Official.

So without further ado, I'll hand it over to that Senior State Department Official to give a little bit of context and then take some of your questions. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great, thanks [Moderator]. And thanks, everybody, for joining. I'm just going to go through a little bit of the chronology of yesterday and provide a few of the substantive details, but then I'm happy to take some questions.

So we at the State Department learned about the incident right around mid-day, I think almost right at noon. And the Secretary at that time was in the middle of a dialogue with Secretary Carter and their Filipino counterparts – a 2+2 meeting it's called – which was taking place up on the eighth floor of the State Department, the sort of diplomatic rooms.

When we first heard the basics, we did some work to try to track down as much detail as we could, and then I went upstairs to brief the Secretary at around 12:30. Secretary Carter was also just learning of this incident right around that time. And the Secretary pretty quickly excused himself to come down to his office and begin making phone calls.

Now, he had – and this illustrates one of the things that I think is interesting and important about this set of events – he had a scheduled call already with Foreign Minister Zarif for 12:45 – somewhere in the 12:45 to 1 o'clock range yesterday which is indicative of the fact – I mean, I think most people on this call know they speak relatively regularly. None of this is that unusual anymore in the wake of the dialogue that we've had about nuclear issues. So this call was already scheduled, but obviously, was going to take on a different nature and a different degree of importance. Before the Secretary got on the phone with Zarif, he spoke with Chairman Dunford over at the Joint Chiefs and with Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor, to try to get a sense exactly of how much information we had about the incident.

Now, the Secretary then got on the phone with Foreign Minister Zarif for the first time – I think the first of at least five phone calls they had during the course of that afternoon and evening – at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. The main message that he – there were a few messages he wanted to convey to the foreign minister. One, to provide him with some information about our understanding of what had happened, which was not perfect but was sort of developing in real time. And we had gathered some information including that the sailors were in transit at the time of the incident, that they were in transit between Kuwait and Bahrain, that they may have had some sort of mechanical problem – although at that point we weren't sure – that we had lost communications with them, and that we had indications that they were now located on Farsi Island in the Gulf.

The Secretary made clear that our most important priority – and that this was critical – was that they be released, obviously, safely and unharmed and as quickly as possible, and that if we were able to do this – and this is something that he said to Zarif on a few occasions – if we are able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.

After that call – Foreign Minister Zarif said that he was just getting information about this himself, although he was aware of the incident – they agreed to continue looking into this and speak again later. After that call, Secretary Carter, who was upstairs in the State Department continuing this dialogue, came down to the Secretary of State's office on the seventh floor. They continued to discuss developments with the National Security Advisor, with Chairman Dunford, continued to build our sort of understanding of the situation.

The Secretary called back Foreign Minister Zarif again around 2 o'clock in the afternoon and made clear that we would be ready to provide any information we could over the course of the coming hours and reiterated our both concern about the safety and well-being of the sailors and strong desire to get this incident resolved. And Foreign Minister Zarif insisted that he was working on this, that he agreed with the imperative of getting this resolved as soon as possible. And you may have questions about Zarif's side of these conversations, but I'll just tell you up front I'm not going to characterize too much of what Foreign Minister Zarif said. We ask our foreign counterparts not to do that as well.

They spoke again, Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif, around 3:00 p.m., maybe – actually, I think it was actually a little bit after 3:00 p.m., probably closer to 3:15. And at that point, Foreign Minister Zarif said to the Secretary that he had indications from the people who were holding our sailors that they would be free to go at dawn, that it was probably not safe for them to transit during the course of the night in dark, that they had been fed, that they were being treated well – again, this is the information that we were receiving – and that all of this was proceeding as they had been discussing during the course of the afternoon. The Secretary conveyed this information to the White House, and obviously to Chairman Dunford and the Pentagon as well.

At that point, they basically just agreed to stay in touch. The Secretary was not going to be the one working out the details of any transfer that took place. I think DOD has talked about how they have a channel of communication between our naval personnel operating over there and Iranian authorities. The details of what took place is not something I can speak to and was sort of coordinated from that point in that military channel, not diplomatically.

The Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif spoke again after the State of the Union last night. Secretary wanted to check in and make sure that all indications remained that this was on track. And Foreign Minister Zarif assured him that everything he knew suggested that it was. This was around, again, 10:30 p.m. here. I think Iran is about eight hours ahead. And then – you should get this information from DOD – but my understanding is somewhere around 3:45 in the morning our time here, this transfer took place; the sailors departed the island and were picked up by the Navy.

So [Moderator], I can --

MODERATOR: Yeah, sure thing. Absolutely.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But I just – some other just quick points before I turn it over. I've seen reports – I guess I've seen various reports about the subject of whether the U.S. Government apologized to the Government of Iran. I can say unequivocally that the U.S. Government did not apologize to the Government of Iran in any way during the course of this. We did provide context. 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.

I would add that we have no indication, but these conversations are sort of ongoing, as we learn more and debrief the sailors involved, that our sailors were mistreated. And I just wanted to underscore the point I made at the beginning that had this happened three years ago – and you can point to sort of similar incidents in which – that we're aware of in which British and other sailors have run into problems like this in the Gulf with the Government of Iran and with the Iranian military – had this happened a few years ago before we had this very direct line of communication at a very senior level of our government, it undoubtedly would have been much more complicated to unwind, would undoubtedly have taken longer and risked all sorts of ancillary effects that would be unpredictable.

The fact that it was resolved peacefully, efficiently, and quickly really does speak to – and I think the Secretary said this at NDU in our statement – the importance of using these diplomatic tools to try to solve problems and using this opening that was provided by these ongoing conversations that we've had in the nuclear context. And I will leave it at that.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much. We'll now have time for some of your questions. So [operator], if you want to go ahead, tee up the first question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. Ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, please press * then 1. Our first question comes from the line of Matthew Lee with the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official], a couple things. One is logistical. You said five calls and I count four. Maybe I'm wrong there. 12:45, 2:00, 3:15, and 10:30. Is there another one?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Matt, I'm having a little trouble hearing you but I think you were asking about the number of calls and you said I had said five and you counted four?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it was at least five, and I think it actually may have been more. But a few of these were literally like a 30-second call, hang up, look for information, call right back afterwards. What I gave you are the sort of main substantive data points that are relevant. But I think it was probably more than five, but I know of at least five, and this was over a period of roughly 10 hours.

MODERATOR: Great, next question.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Justin Fishel with ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there, [Senior State Department Official]. You said that Kerry told Zarif that it would be a good story for both the United States and Iran. I get the good story that Kerry is telling. What's the good story he had in mind for Iran? And what – how exactly were the sailors picked up? You said they were picked up – so they didn't leave in their boats, and how did they get their boats back? And --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So – right, I'm going to – this may not be satisfying, but I'm going to leave all the details of that sort of thing to the Defense Department, which I know is still gathering information, debriefing the people involved. And I don't have much more to tell you than I've already said.

In terms of a good story, I won't speak to how Iran will portray this or characterize their narrative of the situation, but I think what we had in mind, what the Secretary had in mind was that it would be a demonstration of them operating as a responsible maritime operation in the Gulf and a responsible nation that would deal with these things in a way that other responsible nations have in the past and would going forward. I think it was an opportunity to demonstrate that they had the ability to cooperate and to be responsible when presented with a complicated situation like this.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Warren Strobel with Reuters. Please go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: [Senior State Department Official], thanks for doing this. This may seem obvious, but I'd like to hear from you how much the Secretary was concerned in the back of his mind or in the front of his mind that this could degenerate into a larger incident that would derail implementation day of the Iran nuclear deal. I understand they're separate subjects --


QUESTION: -- but they could be linked.


QUESTION: And also not just that, but also the broader detente with Iran.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I guess I would say, first and foremost, the Secretary's concern, both as the U.S. Secretary of State and as a former member of the United States Navy, was with the safety and security of the people who were caught up in this incident, the American sailors. But not just in the back of his mind, but I think foremost – at front of mind for everybody, including, I would suspect, on the Iranian side, was the concern, as I said early on, that there would be the risk of escalation and the spillover of this issue into other issues, including, no doubt, the nuclear situation.

MODERATOR: Great. Time for a couple more questions. Next question please.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this. There's been – now that the sailors are back, there's been a video circulating of the sailors kneeling and with their hands behind their heads, under Iranian detention. There's another video circulating on Twitter that shows a sailor apologizing, which maybe was some sort of forced confession. Is the U.S. looking into that as some sort of violation of if the Iranians went too far in questioning the Americans, and like, any comment to that footage?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I have seen these. I can't speak to authenticity or anything like that, but I have certainly seen the videos. As for whether or not this is sort of standard or some sort of violation, I would just – I would have to refer you to the Defense Department, which, again, is continuing to gather information both about the incident and would be best positioned to determine whether this is consistent with the way people are supposed to be treated in these situations.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. And then just our final question. Sorry we have to rush a little bit here, but go ahead.

OPERATOR: That comes from the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Was there any coordination in terms of how the two foreign ministers would announce the details of this? There seemed to be some tweets timed around the same time. And also, what does this say to you in terms of the status of the five American civilians who are still detained in Iran? Does the fact that Zarif was able to follow through on what he said he was going to do in getting these sailors out give you any hope that the other Americans might be coming home soon?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Margaret. No, there was no coordination on public statements or tweets or anything like that, and I think I'll just leave it at that. I mean, some of this, as I think you all know, started to break yesterday afternoon. I think to some extent, our preference would have been to keep this as quiet as possible until people were back in our – our people were back in our custody, but it happened the way it often does and I think it was handled appropriately on both sides.

Your question about – sorry, what was your second question?

MODERATOR: Oh, [Senior State Department Official], it was --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I remember now. Sorry about the --

MODERATOR: It was – sorry, it was about American --


MODERATOR: Yeah, American --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I – in terms of what impact this will have on other things or whether it gives greater confidence about anything else, I think it's too soon to make an assessment like that. I guess I would just reiterate that that's an issue that is always a front-of-mind concern here. It's an issue we raise, as I think everyone here knows, in virtually every encounter we have with the Iranians and we remain strongly of the view that the Americans who are detained and missing there should be reunited with their families and brought home as soon as possible.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. And thanks to all of you for joining us, again, on such short notice. Appreciate it. Everybody have a great day.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list