Now that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found Iran to be in compliance with Obama’s nuclear weapons agreement, sanctions have been lifted, more than a hundred billion dollars have been released to the Iranians to do with what they please, and several Americans have been returned from Iranian captivity.
All is well. Everyone should be relaxed and happy, right? The Iranians, at long last, are our friends. Well, no.
On the day of Obama’s last State of the Union speech, two U.S. Navy boats carrying ten sailors were captured by Iranian Forces near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. The next day they were released. But there are a lot of important questions left unanswered about their capture and the sailors’ behavior while in captivity. These questions are important to the future of our navy because the answers to them may point to damage done by Obama and his team that urgently needs to be repaired.
The facts we know are few. Two riverine patrol boats, part of the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, were traveling from Kuwait to Bahrain (a distance of roughly 200 miles) and were supposed to meet a refueling boat along the way. One boat experienced engine trouble but was still able to proceed at lower than usual speed. When they came somewhere near Iran’s Farsi Island they were confronted by an Iranian force and surrendered.
The ten sailors aboard, nine men and one woman, were photographed surrendering, kneeling with their hands on the backs of their heads and later in a room clustered together. The woman was apparently required by the Iranians to wear some sort of Muslim headscarf while in captivity, as the photos show. They were released on Wednesday, the boats leaving under their own power.
While in Iranian captivity, the sailors were photographed and a propaganda video was made. In the video, Navy Lt. David Nartker said, “It was a mistake. That was our fault. We apologize for our mistake.” He also reportedly thanked the Iranians for their hospitality.
We know about the propaganda video, and the photos, because they were eagerly distributed by the Iranians to show how easily they were able to capture and humiliate the Americans. It could easily have been another 1979 hostage crisis but for one thing. No, not the expert diplomacy by Obama and Kerry. The fact that under Obama’s horrendous nuclear weapons deal with Iran, the Iranians were to get over $100 billion in funds released to them later last week, and they did. The money would have been at risk as long as the sailors were held.
Speculation about what might have happened is, as always, useless and foolish. Let’s stick to the big facts we don’t know.
The Persian Gulf isn’t that wide a body of water. Iran, like several other enemy nations, claims its territorial waters extend farther than ours. We claim three miles, Iran claims twelve. Farsi Island is nearly halfway across the Gulf. Extending twelve miles from the island leaves a pretty narrow passage for any ships. It’s possible, but unclear, that the boats actually were in Iran’s claimed territorial waters when captured.
Question 1: We know that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has a naval base on Farsi Island. From there, they have based “swarm” attacks — made by bunches of small armed boats — against other nations’ ships from time to time. From what we know so far, it appears that the refueling for the two riverine boats was planned to be near Farsi Island. Given wind, currents and the possibility of human error, what idiot decided to refuel the boats so near an IRGC naval base?
Question 2: What orders and rules of engagement told the sailors what they had to do if they encountered Iranian forces? The military code of conduct requires commanders not to surrender while anyone is capable of fighting. Through Iran has been at war with us since 1979, we’re not at war with them. The president gives every indication that he regards the Iranians as friends. Did the ROE require the sailors to not fire until fired upon? Just what did they say?
Question 3: Did the boat having engine trouble report that fact to higher command? If it did, was its location, and that of the second boat, tracked by satellite or otherwise? If not, why not? If the boats were tracked, were there any forces available by air or sea to rescue them from Iranian forces?
Question 4: What force confronted the two boats on Tuesday and took them prisoner? I’m not, on the basis of what we know, going to say that the ten sailors had to fight and lose their lives in a futile battle. Running was probably not possible given the disability of one boat’s engines, but surrender can’t be the first option. Nartker or one of the other sailors must have radioed for help when the Iranians approached. What was the response? Was there a Benghazi-like “stand down” order from higher ups? Just how far up the chain of command were people aware of the boats’ predicament and what did they do?
Question 5: What training in the Code of Conduct did the sailors receive? Nartker is reportedly a 2011 graduate of the Naval Academy and had to know his duties under the Code. He likely was in command of the two boats. At this point, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the surrender, because he may have confronted an overwhelming force. But he must have known that making his apology to the video would lend aid and comfort to the enemy that captured his command. His conduct should be investigated and he may have to be court-martialed.
(More than nine years ago I visited Naval Expeditionary Combat Command in Norfolk, Virginia not long after it was established. As I wrote for the TAS magazine at the time, I met the commander at the time, Adm. Don Bullard, and went on a jarring ride off Norfolk on one of the riverine boats. It was driven by a “combat coxswain” named Scotty, and — as he explained while driving, over the engine’s roar — if you’re not getting beaten up while he was driving, he wasn’t doing his job properly.
The boat, as I recall, had short masts making over-the-horizon communications impossible unless it was equipped with satellite comm gear. I didn’t ask if it was, spending most of my time hanging on to one of the many handrails that were positioned so that the crew could hang on while Scotty swerved sharply around the water, bouncing hard over small waves.
The boat’s armament was only a couple of machine gun mounts and small arms. Not enough to drive off any helicopters or a swarm of Iranian small boats.)
The most important problem that this incident illustrates is the command environment established by Obama, Ashton Carter, his secretary of defense, and Ray Mabus, his navy secretary. To them, the military code of conduct is an after-thought. Social engineering is vastly more important as is the effort to make the navy “green.”
Please remember that Carter has ordered women to be included in every military occupation, including special forces with, in his words, no exceptions. Mabus will be remembered for two things. First, enforcing the Obama/Carter edict on women to the degree that the Marine Corps, despite its objections, must not only include women in infantry but also eliminate the word “man” from all “MOS’s,” military occupational specialties. Second, for buying “biofuels” for the navy at roughly ten times the price of regular diesel fuel. He may be the worst SECNAV ever.
In that confused environment, when Iran is characterized as a friend rather than an enemy, it’s understandable — but not forgivable — for someone like Lt. Nartker to misunderstand his duties. Again, I’m not going to condemn him for surrendering if he was unable to resist. But how are we training our sailors and officers at this point?
Only a real and public investigation will reveal that answer. And I’ll bet no such investigation will be done.