Briefing on the Release of United States Sailors by Iran (excerpt)
(Source: US State Department; issued January 13, 2016)
Special Briefing by Senior State Department Official; Washington, DC
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. (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full transcript, on the State Dept. website.

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