REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday welcomed the U.S. Navy’s rescue of 13 Iranian fishermen held hostage by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea, calling it a humanitarian act.
But the hard-line Fars news agency, which is close to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, dismissed the rescue as a Hollywood-style propaganda stunt intended to justify the U.S. Navy's presence in the nearby Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials announced the rescue Friday, saying sailors from the guided-missile destroyer Kidd had boarded an Iranian dhow Thursday and detained 15 Somalis after one of the fishermen was able to reveal in a radio communication that his vessel's crew was being held captive.
The U.S. officials pointed out that the destroyer was part of the same group of warships that Tehran had said was no longer welcome in the Persian Gulf.
"We consider the actions of the U.S. forces in saving the lives of the Iranian seamen to be a humanitarian and positive act, and we welcome such behavior," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told state television’s Al Alam Arabic channel Saturday. "We think all nations should display such behavior."
Fars said Iran’s navy has often freed foreign ships from pirates without seeking publicity.
"A U.S. helicopter filming the rescue operation from the first minute makes it look like a Hollywood movie with specific locations and specific actors," Fars said. "It shows the Americans were trying to exploit it through the media and present the American warship as a savior."
The rescue came amid increasing tension between the West and Iran over the country’s disputed nuclear program. The United States and its allies suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge denied by Tehran, which says the program is for peaceful purposes only.
In response to escalating Western sanctions, Iranian officials have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. About a fifth of the world’s oil exports pass through the strategic choke point.
On Tuesday, Iran’s army chief advised the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis to stay out of the Persian Gulf after it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s navy also carried out 10 days of drills near the channel.
On Saturday, the Revolutionary Guard began military exercises near the Afghan border, Fars reported.
Mohammed Pakpour, commander of the guard’s ground forces, was quoted as saying that the war games were aimed at improving border security. Iran is planning additional military exercises near the Strait of Hormuz next month.
-- Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Zavis
Photo: The guided-missile destroyer Kidd responds to a distress call from an Iranian fishing vessel Thursday in the Arabian Sea. Credit: U.S. Navy