MEDIA, Pa. (WHTM) – Joe Sestak says the situation involving American sailors detained by the Iranian military this week could have been worse.
The former 3-Star Admiral, and U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania now running for U.S. Senate believes recent diplomatic meetings between the United States and Iran may have paved the way for a quick resolution.
“I think it was handled well by our diplomats,” Sestak says. “I think by means of this Iranian accord (nuclear deal), we had that line of communication, where we didn’t have it some period ago.”
On Tuesday, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard detained ten Americans, when at least one of their two riverine transport boats experienced apparent engine trouble and drifted into seas controlled by Iran. The sailors were held overnight, and released peacefully on Wednesday.
“The seas out there, the oceans, these waters are owned by everyone,” says Sestak. “It’s a tough situation out there.”
Sestak led an aircraft carrier battle unit in the Persian Gulf in 2002, during combat operations with Iraq and Afghanistan. He says in that time, he accompanied sailors on U.S. riverine vessels, like the one boarded by Iran when it entered protected waters. At the time, Sestak says the United States was in the position of boarding vessels, to inspect them for illegal items being shipped to Iraq.
“I went with my sailors, even though I was Navy Admiral,” recalls Sestak. “Because I wanted to go with them to make sure I understood how they did it. I also wanted them to know that I would be there and had experienced what they had. It’s a hairy situation.” Sestak recalls “hundreds of small boats” in the Gulf, especially at night, when cigarette smugglers would attempt to deliver their illegal goods to Iranian shores. He described one incident in which he ordered bullets to be fired as a warning to a small vessel when it unexpectedly began to close in on his U.S. ship. The ship turned away shortly after. In another situation, he remembers making the decision not to fire upon a Iranian aircraft that had flown over his position, an unprecedented occurrence at the time, and determining that it posed no immediate threat to his fleet.
During the Iranian detention of the Americans this week, video and pictures were released by Iran, showing the group of ten U.S. sailors, which included one woman, in submissive positions. The crew is seen on their knees with their hands held behind their heads while Iranian troops stand guard.
“I think they released those pictures to try to make a bit of a show, without question,” offered Sestak, adding that the security procedures are likely no different than if the U.S would encounter a foreign vessel in its own protected seas. “I have no doubt that if a North Korean vessel, military vessel, which you knew had arms on it, all of the sudden was in our water, that it would not be safe for us to board that vessel without making sure their hands were up. Or that somehow they were not able to take a belligerent action where we could not protect ourselves.”
Other videos show the Americans unharmed and resting comfortably in a room with pillows and blankets. The video also features a verbal apology by one sailor, saying in part, “It was a mistake, that was our fault. And we apologize for our mistake. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here, and we thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”
While the State Department has denied there was any apology extended to Iran at their level, Sestak believes the sailor was doing what he had to do to ensure the safety of his crew.
“There’s one thing to say there’s no apology needed at a high diplomatic level. Here, obviously, there’s obviously no communication with our sailors who are sitting there isolated,” says Sestak, offering further support for the actions of a sailor in custody. “It would be absolutely unforgivable for anyone to critique that young sailor there. Particularly those who haven’t served.”