Amid tensions, U.S. Navy rescues Iranians from Somali pirates

Just days after Iranian and American military officials traded warnings over a U.S. Navy vessel's departure from the Persian Gulf, the United States Navy has rescued 13 Iranian fishermen and their fishing dhow from Somali pirates in the north Arabian sea, the Pentagon said Friday. And in a side irony that punctuates the rare instance of Iranian-American co-operation, the rescue operation was carried out by a ship belonging to the very U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group that Iranian army officials had earlier boasted of evicting from Gulf waters.

"A boarding team from the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd--part of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group--detained 15 suspected pirates aboard the fishing dhow, the Al Molai, according to a statement today from the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs Office," Bloomberg News' Tony Capaccio reported Friday. "The pirates didn't resist and surrendered quickly in the rescue" operation, which occurred on Thursday.

The Iranian fishermen "were held hostage, with limited rations, and we believe were forced against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations," Josh Schminky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent aboard the Kidd, explained in the Navy statement, according to the Bloomberg report.

The Navy has posted an unclassified YouTube video of the rescue operation--seemingly eager to play up the good turn the American Navy has done for the Iranian fishermen. (You can watch the video in the clip above.) Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also called the commander of the USS John C. Stennis' Carrier Strike Group, Rear Adm. Craig Fuller, to congratulate him on the "well executed" rescue operation, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Friday.

Secretary Panetta "said, 'When we get a distress signal, we're going to respond,'" Little relayed in a statement sent to Yahoo News. "'That's the nature of what our country is all about.'"

Not to make too much of the opportunity to win Iranian hearts and minds, of course.

Earlier this week, Iran's Army chief Ataolla Salehi asserted that Iranian military exercises had prompted a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to vacate the Persian Gulf. And he warned the United States about any plans for the carrier's return.

"Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill," Salehi said on Tuesday, according to a Reuters report. "I advise, recommend and warn them over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once."

Salehi didn't name the American naval vessel in question, "but the USS John C. Stennis leads a task force in the region, and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet website pictured it in the Arabian Sea last week," Reuters reported.

Pentagon officials promptly pushed back against the Iranian army chief's warning, stressing that the United States simply wants to ensure open traffic in international waters."We are committed to protecting maritime freedoms that are the basis for global prosperity," the Pentagon's Little said Tuesday. "This is one of the main reasons our military forces operate in the region."

Tensions have been rising between the United States and Iran in recent weeks, with Iranian officials issuing a series of erratic threats about their military capacity to control the Strait of Hormuz, a key global energy transport hub. On Sunday January 1, President Obama signed legislation that could penalize any institution that does business with Iran's Central Bank--a chief source of Iran's revenues for oil exports. European diplomats also said this week that they're preparing a ban throughout the EU on the import of Iranian oil that would go into place at the end of the month.

Iranian officials have given numerous statements the past week indicating they would like to return to international nuclear talks. But EU officials have told Yahoo News that Iran has not yet formally responded in writing to a proposal issued by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton in October to resume negotiations.

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