The Navy commander in charge of a pair of patrol boats captured by Iranian forces in January opted to surrender rather than fight back, citing later fears that a confrontation could endanger the Obama administration’s efforts to lock in a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program.
In an interview with investigators looking into the January incident, the commander said he surrendered the vessels after calculating that his sailors would not be in danger because Iran “wants this nuke deal to go through.”
The interview was one of several stunning revelations in the often scathing 170-page report compiled by Navy investigators, chronicling the chain of events that led to the apprehension and detention of the 10 American sailors by the Iranian military after a pair of U.S. patrol boats drifted into the country’s sovereign waters in the Persian Gulf.
The incident, which played out as President Obama was preparing his State of the Union address, proved deeply embarrassing to the U.S. military and roiled diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington as they were trying to implement key measures in the deal to curb Iran’s suspect nuclear programs.
Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said Thursday that the mishandling of the incident resulted from “the accumulation of a number of small problems” created by the U.S. sailors who strayed into Iranian waters all the way up to the senior commanders who led the Navy squadron and task force under which the unit served.
While contending Iran also violated international law with rough handling of its American captives, “this incident did not live up to our expectations of our Navy,” Adm. Richardson said.
Nine Navy officers have been fired for their involvement in the incident, in which the two Navy patrol boats, running late on their assigned mission, drifted into the costal waters near Farsi Island, home to an Iranian naval base.
The Navy officers fired included squadron chief Cmdr. Greg Meyer and Capt. Kyle Moses, head of Combined Task Force 56, the unit in charge of the boat crews.
Heavily outgunned and outnumbered by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Navy commander — whose name was redacted from the report — told investigators he calculated that Tehran’s desire to keep the nuclear deal with the U.S. alive would also protect the 10 American sailors if they surrendered.
“I didn’t want to start a war with Iran. … I didn’t want to start a war that would get people killed,” the commander said.
“I guess this was a gamble on my part. … I made the gamble that they were not going to kill us. I made the gamble they were not going to parade us around like prisoners of war because they want this nuke deal to go through.”
Mr. Obama, the unidentified commander said, would not want me to start a war over a mistake, over a misunderstanding.”
‘Adverse to U.S. interests’
The partially redacted report was also critical of the behavior of the U.S. sailors once in Iranian custody.
One sailor reportedly made “statements adverse to U.S. interests” during interrogation. As the Iranians videotaped their captives for later display on state television, another sailor encouraged the U.S. crew members to accept food offered to them.
One unidentified sailor was said to have violated the code of conduct standards when he “acquiesced” in making an Iranian-scripted statement on camera in exchange for the crew’s release.
“It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake,” a U.S. sailor, identified as the commander of one of the patrol boats, said during the videotaped apology. “It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”
In the end, after frantic diplomacy that included Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, the American sailors were released unharmed after 15 hours.
While the Navy, Pentagon and White House maintain that the apprehension and detention of the U.S. sailors were unjustified, the incident as it played out exposed top-to-bottom failures within the Navy’s chain of command, Adm. Richardson told reporters Thursday.
Navy leaders are also weighing whether to fire several other sailors and officers tied to the January incident, including members of the boat crews who reportedly broke code of conduct rules, said Vice Adm. Chris Aquilino, deputy for operations, plans and strategy.
The ongoing inquiries into the code of conduct violations are centered on a public apology given by one of the detained sailors, which was televised by Iranian state news outlets.
Other U.S. sailors reportedly disclosed technical information about the patrol boats to Iranian interrogators, and one sailor handed over the password to a personal laptop confiscated by Iranian forces.
Aside from further disciplinary action against the sailors involved, Navy leaders have mandated that all sailors undergo survival, evasion, resistance and escape training to better prepare for rigors of imprisonment by enemy forces, Adm. Richardson said.
The investigation revealed details over how the U.S. seamen unwittingly found themselves in hostile hands. From the beginning, mistakes by the boat crews, squadron commanders and task force leaders set the stage for the embarrassing incident, Navy officials said.
The two patrol boats — dubbed “Demon Lead” and “Demon Two” — set off for their mission to travel from the U.S. naval base in Kuwait to 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain four hours behind schedule, according to a timeline of events compiled by Navy investigators.
In an attempt to make up for lost time, commanders on both patrol boats plotted a different course without notifying task force commanders.
The boat crews did radio in their location to the task force’s operation center every 30 minutes, which is Navy protocol for such operations. However, even though sailors and Navy officers manning the operation center were aware that both boats were taking a different route, no one from the center notified senior staff that the boats were off course near sensitive Iranian territorial waters.
The last-minute change to the travel route skirted Iranian waters, but the plotted course did not traverse directly through those areas. During the voyage, one of the boats sustained a catastrophic engine failure, leaving the vessel listing in quickly moving seas, according to the Navy’s account.
The second boat stopped to help the crew of the distressed boat when two Iranian-flagged armed patrol boats approached the U.S. ships and brought them to port.
“There were no good choices” for the crews after that, Adm. Richardson said.
Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in a statement Thursday that the investigation should focus on Iran’s “flagrant violations of international law” in seizing and holding the U.S. sailors, and on the failure of the Obama administration to take a tough line with Tehran.
“Five months later, the administration has shamefully failed to retract its craven statements of gratitude and praise for Iran’s illegal behavior,” Mr. McCain said.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized Iran but said the Navy was right to review its own performance and systems.
“It can be easy to point fingers, but military operations are complex and dangerous, and things do go wrong,” Mr. Smith said in a statement. “When that happens, you have to take the proper corrective actions and learn the appropriate lessons.”
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