US officials scramble after Iran takes custody of two Navy boats


Iran on Tuesday took two U.S. Navy boats and 10 American sailors into custody, creating a diplomatic crisis for the Obama administration just hours before the State of the Union address.

U.S. officials scrambled to respond to the detention, which threatened to create an international incident at time when Iran is poised to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief under the controversial nuclear deal.

The Pentagon said Iran has provided assurances that the crew and vessels will be returned.

Senior Pentagon officials said the Navy vessels — two small watercraft — were being allowed to continue traveling from Kuwait to Bahrain but that they were still "with Iranian officials as they continue their journey."

Another senior Defense official said the American sailors — nine men and one woman — were being held overnight and would be released “during daylight hours.”

Iranian state media reported the sailors were arrested on suspicion of “snooping.”

Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryThe evidence backs Trump: We have a duty to doubt election results Effective sanctions relief on Iran for sanctions’ sake What would a Hillary Clinton presidency look like? MORE was "in touch with Iranian authorities on this issue," according to a senior administration official.

The dispute threatened to overshadow President Obama’s final State of the Union, a speech he had hoped would be a chance to define his legacy and tout what he thinks are his achievement at home and abroad.

Republicans pounced on the incident, calling it the latest example of Obama cowering in the face of Iranian aggression.

"I'm sure @POTUS will mention his new 'partner' #Iran tonight. Somehow I doubt this latest incident makes it into his #LastSOTU speech," tweeted Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonCotton not ruling out 2020 White House bid GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election GOP chairman demands number of immigrants granted accidental citizenship MORE (R-Ark.), a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal, said he didn't think it was "coincidental" that the country had seized the vessels hours before Obama's address. He called the incident "humiliating" for the country.

"It's humiliating for Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMosul and Aleppo are trees in larger forest of Shia-Sunni conflict Obama reads round two of ‘mean tweets’ on Kimmel Trump links WikiLeaks to media ‘voter suppression’ MORE and therefore the United States to have American sailors held hostage during his final State of the Union," Cotton said.

Cotton pointed to reporting from CNN that a senior administration official said there wasn't any indication that the situation with the sailors was hostile in nature.

"Senior members of Barack Obama's administration are apologizing for Iran seizing two U.S. Navy vessels and holding 10 sailors hostage," Cotton said. "The White House tonight is a hotbed of cold feet."

White House communications director Jen Psaki downplayed the Iran dispute ahead of Obama’s speech.

"We address things that come up every single day," Psaki said.

"The State of the Union will not be about this issue."

One Republican suggested Obama should delay the State of the Union until lawmakers are fully briefed on what happened in the Persian Gulf.

"I think the White House needs to be honest and transparent as quickly as possible with the members of the Congress, the House and the Senate — perhaps that even means a delay to the start of the State of the Union tonight to talk about exactly what happened," Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Administration vows 'proportional' response to Russian hack Trump denies Russia behind attack, despite fed investigation saying otherwise MORE (R-Colo.) said on CNN.

Gardner cited Iran's apparent "pattern of aggravating action," including taking custody of boats under the U.S. flag and recently testing ballistic missiles in spite of sanctions.

Iran in December conducted a live-fire exercise with little notice just 1,500 yards away from U.S. and French aircraft carriers that were transiting in the Strait of Hormuz, an action defense officials blasted as "unnecessarily provocative and unsafe."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on CNN's "The Lead" that he was "confident" there would be officials from the National Security Council briefing members of Congress about the latest incident.

"Certainly the United States has been concerned with the kind of provocative, destabilizing actions that have been a hallmark of Iranian behavior over the last several decades," Earnest said.

The capture of the U.S. sailors also put the spotlight on Iran's continued detention of five American citizens, something Republicans have highlighted to criticize the nuclear deal.

Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Matt SalmonMatt SalmonRep. Meadows to run for Freedom Caucus chairman GOP lawmakers give Trump bad reviews on debate performance House GOP talks 'minibuses,' moves toward Senate in spending fight MORE (R-Ariz.) invited the sister and brother-in-law of a detained American and former Marine as their guests to the State of the Union address to draw attention to their plight.

Updated at 10:39 p.m.