For the second time in as many weeks, the U.S. military has rescued distressed Iranian sailors, despite the extremely high tensions between the two nations.
According to the Navy's account, at about 3 a.m. local time an American Coast Guard patrol boat in the north Persian Gulf was hailed by flares and flashlights from an Iranian cargo ship whose engine room was flooding. Six Iranians were rescued from the ship, fed halal meals in accordance with Islamic law, and later taken to shore.
"Saving lives is the last thing you expect to do at [3 a.m.] while patrolling in the Northern Arabian Gulf, but being in the Coast Guard, that's what we are trained to do," Boatswain Mate 2nd Class Emily Poole said in a statement by the Navy, using an alternate designation for the Persian Gulf.
Last week, the U.S. Navy rescued more than a dozen Iranian sailors who had been held hostage by pirates in the Arabian Sea for weeks. American sailors on a "visit, board, search and seizure team" were able to free the sailors and take 15 suspected pirates into custody without incident on Jan. 5, the Navy said. The pirates had been apparently using the Iranian vessel as a "mothership" to launch pirate operations in the region.
Last week's Navy rescue drew a lukewarm response from Iranian officials, but after the more recent incident, the captain of an Iranian coast guard vessel that picked up the rescued mariners was quick to thank his American counterparts.
The U.S. Navy statement said the captain of the Naji 7, through a translator, "Sends his regards and thanks to our Captain and all crewmembers for assisting, and taking care of the Iranian sailors. Wishes us the best, and thanks us for our cooperation."
Both rescues come in the midst of an especially tense time between the U.S. and Iran. Most recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Monday Iran has been enriching uranium in a highly-protected underground bunker as part of the nation's nuclear program -- a move the U.S. State Department said was a "further escalation of their ongoing violations with regard to their nuclear obligations."
Over the weekend, an Iranian court handed down a death sentence to an American former Marine accused of spying for the CIA in Tehran. Both the U.S. government and the 28-year-old's family have repeatedly called the Iranian allegations "fabrications."
Last week, the Iranian navy carried out a major exercise in the Persian Gulf that reportedly included missile tests and surveillance of U.S. vessels in the area. An Iranian military commander then warned the U.S. not to send U.S. warships back into the Persian Gulf following a battle group's trip out of the Gulf to assist operations in Afghanistan.
"We are not used to repeating our warnings and we issue warnings only once," Iranian Army Commander Major General Ataollah Salehi said last week, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.
Iranian officials also threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to a new round of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow gap that links the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean, is the world's "most important oil chokepoint" due to the amount of Middle East oil that flows through it daily, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.