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Despite tensions, US rescues 13 Iranian seamen from pirates

The pirates were brought aboard the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, the same ship Iran's navy threatened on Tuesday. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Casting aside current tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the U.S. Navy on Friday rescued 13 Iranian seamen who were being held captive by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Oman.

A Navy helicopter from the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, responding to a distress call from a merchant ship under attack by pirates, chased the pirates to their "mother ship," an Iranian-flagged dhow that had earlier been hijacked.

U.S. Navy

A sailor aboard a safety boat observes a "visit, board, search and seizure team" from USS Kidd on Thursday, Jan. 5. The Navy boarded the Iranian-flagged fishing dhow Al Molai to rescue 13 Iranian seamen held captive by Somali pirates.


A heavily-armed counter-piracy team from the Navy destroyer USS Kidd met little resistance when they boarded the dhow where they found 15 armed pirates and the 13 Iranians who were being held hostage. The pirates were taken into custody. The Iranians were set free in their dhow.


The rescue occurred about 175 miles southeast of Muscat, Oman.

It came less than two days after Iran threatened never to allow the USS John C. Stennis back to the Persian gulf following its departure last week for the Gulf of Oman and North Arabian Sea.

U.S. Navy

The USS Kidd responds to a distress call from the Iranian-flagged fishing dhow Al Molai on Thursday, Jan. 5. The Navy boarded the ship to rescue 13 Iranian seamen held captive by Somali pirates.

An Iranian surveillance plane last week video-recorded and photographed the vessel near the Strait of Hormuz, in a bid to cast its navy as having a powerful role in the region's waters.

Iran has threatened to close the route in possible retaliation to new U.S. and European economic sanctions, a tactic the U.S. already has said it would not tolerate.

About one-sixth of the world's oil passes on tankers through the Strait of Hormuz, and analysts have warned the price of Brent crude could temporarily jump to as high as $210 if the strait is closed.


Iranian military personnel participate in the Velayat-90 war game in unknown location near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran Dec. 30.

U.S. officials have said the Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in nearby Bahrain, is prepared to defend the shipping route.

White House officials said Iran's threat showed Tehran was increasingly isolated internationally, faced economic problems from to sanctions and wants to divert attention from its deepening problems.

"It reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of weakness," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday.

State news agency IRNA quoted Iranian army chief Ataollah Salehi as saying: "Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf.

AFP/Iran state media

The USS John C. Stennis, pictured as it allegedly went "inside the maneuver zone" where Iranian ships were conducting war games in the Gulf, according to Iranian officials who supplied the image.

"I advise, recommend and warn them (the Americans) over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once," he said.

Britain's defense secretary warned Iran Thursday that any attempt to block the key global oil passageway the Strait of Hormuz would be illegal and unsuccessful — hinting at a robust international response.

During his  first visit to the Pentagon for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Philip Hammond told the Atlantic Council in Washington that the presence of British and American naval ships in the Persian Gulf would ensure the route is kept open for trade.

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  NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.