The skipper of the boats captured by Iran this year says he should be commended and not penalized for averting a potential firefight in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. Navy has rebuked him and effectively ended his once-promising career in the military. But Lt. David Nartker makes no apologies for his actions when two boats under his command strayed into Iranian waters and ended up captured by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, Nartker defended his role in the Jan. 12 incident in the Persian Gulf, arguing that he safeguarded the lives of his crew and averted a potential war with Iran over a navigational error.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the case, Nartker last week offered an alternative narrative to the one painted by the U.S. Navy, which has reprimanded him for “dereliction of duty.” He described a harrowing confrontation near Farsi Island as two Iranian vessels equipped with machine guns encircled his riverine boats. He said he had only seconds to decide whether to order his crew to open fire or to look for a way out of the showdown.
After his boats tried and failed to evade the two Iranian vessels closing in around them, Nartker considered the possibility of aiming his M4 assault rifle at a Iranian gunner only about 10 feet away.
“I know I could have hit that guy and killed him. There was eye contact,” Nartker said.
If he had taken the shot, his boats could have tried to make a run for it, he said. The Americans would have had to race about eight to ten nautical miles to make it to international waters — but within the potential range of two machine guns on the Iranian boats.
Nartker ruled it out. “I was thinking, ‘I am not going to kill this guy right now over a bullshit navigation mistake,’” he said.
“There would be a dead Iranian in Iranian waters. And there was no way to claim it was international waters.”
There also was the threat of more Iranian boats coming after them, and the possibility of an extended firefight with unforeseen consequences, according to Nartker.
“I was not going to ignite a conflict over this,” he said, adding, “And I don’t have the authority to start a war.”
The standoff at sea coincided with a pivotal moment in U.S.-Iran relations, just as major powers were on the verge of lifting economic sanctions against Tehran in return for limits on the country’s nuclear program. The historic nuclear deal has since become a signature legacy issue for U.S. President Barack Obama.
Nartker is one of six service members, including four officers, who have been punished over the episode, which dismayed the Navy and proved a public relations headache for the White House. Although Nartker and nine other members of his crew were released 16 hours after the Iranians detained them, Tehran released a propaganda video that showed the American sailors on the riverine boat deck kneeling with their hands on their heads. There was also footage of Nartker apologizing for sailing into Iran’s territorial waters.
Republicans in Congress pounced on the incident as evidence of Tehran exploiting what they consider the Obama administration’s conciliatory stance toward Iran and slammed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for expressing gratitude to the Iranians after the sailors were released unharmed.
“This administration’s groveling to Iran has placed all American service members at greater risk,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a June statement.
Nartker said he believed the fallout from the video turned him into a scapegoat. “I embarrassed the Navy, and therefore they punished me,” he said.
His defense lawyer, Phillip Lowry, argued in an appeal to naval authorities that his client should be commended instead of penalized for his actions, as an armed clash at Farsi Island could have led to casualties among the boat crews and “wider and far more volatile international crisis.”
The young officer, who turns 28 this week, displayed “calm” and made “level-headed decisions,” Lowry wrote in an Aug. 10 appeal. He said naval commanders should overlook any minor errors because Nartker made the right decision on the high-stakes choice before him, recognizing that there was no strategic or tactical advantage to be won by entering into a battle.
But the U.S. Pacific Fleet rejected Nartker’s appeal for a lesser penalty that would have allowed him to advance up the ranks. He has received a letter of reprimand that finds him at fault for failing to conduct a patrol briefing before the mission, for failing to chart a navigation course on paper and for failing to ensure ammunition was loaded onto feed trays for the machine guns aboard the boats.
The Navy declined to respond directly to Nartker’s comments. But U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Clint Ramsden said: “The appeal was denied based on a finding that the punishment was just and proportionate.”
Nartker and his attorney reject the how the Navy has portrayed his role, citing failures among his superiors, and insist that his response was in keeping with his training since he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy five years ago. They argue that the mistakes cited in the letter of reprimand did not affect the outcome of the mission.
Nartker said his approach reflected how fellow officers have operated in the region for years, exercising restraint in the face of often provocative moves by Iranian speed boats in the Persian Gulf’s crowded sea lanes.
Sailors deploying to the region are ordered to memorize vaguely worded rules of engagement that refer to every service member’s inherent right to self-defense. But there is also a common understanding that tense encounters with Iranian boats are to be tolerated without resorting to firing weapons, Nartker said.
“You know more or less you can’t shoot at Iranians. Only if they shoot at us, we can shoot back,” Nartker said.
A Navy officer who has deployed on ships in the Gulf agreed.
“Decisions to withhold the use of force are a common occurrence in the area,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his standing in the service. “There is no appetite for creating an international incident, let alone getting people killed because reckless Iranian commanders want to play chicken with the U.S. Navy.”
The officer said Nartker’s response made sense given the circumstances. “Our vessels were not where they should have been; we would not have had much standing in the court of public opinion in trying to justify why we engaged in combat with a nation’s navy in its own territorial waters,” he said.
In recent weeks, there has been a spike in tense encounters between Iranian and U.S. vessels in the same waterway. In one incident last month, a U.S. naval ship fired three warning shots after an Iranian fast-attack boat swerved within 200 yards of the vessel, according to the U.S. Defense Department. During years of cat-and-mouse maneuvers in the Gulf, American ships have rarely fired warning shots, several active-duty officers said.
The incident at Farsi Island has evoked mixed reactions inside the Navy, with some officers saying privately the lack of logistical back-up and training reflected a low-priority attached to the service’s riverine boat squadrons.
A senior U.S. military official familiar with the investigation into the Farsi Island encounter said Nartker was judged for his performance over the entire mission, not merely for his behavior when the Iranian forces showed up.
There were a “litany of mistakes,” starting with the lack of a proper navigation and safety briefing at the outset.
“That was a Three Stooges movie from beginning to end,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As the senior officer leading the boats, the Navy had to hold Nartker accountable, he said.
The five-month Navy investigation into the incident found a series of mistakes across the chain of command that helped lead to the debacle. The inquiry also leveled criticism at more senior officers for failing to adequately train and equip the riverine boat crews and for failing to guide the boats as they headed toward Iranian waters.
One boat had to be cannibalized to make another riverine boat sea-worthy in time for the trip to Bahrain, which was ordered on short-notice. One of the two riverine boats on the mission had no satellite communications link with naval command posts. An operations center never warned Nartker that his boats were sailing in the wrong direction. The tiny island under Iranian control did not show up on the vessel’s COGENT electronic navigating device — as it was configured for the longer-distance Kuwait-to-Bahrain journey. The crew had asked for in-depth training on the navigating device but were given only a short, one-hour session, according to Nartker.
The young officer ordered his boats to take a short-cut from a previously arranged course to ensure his crews could reach a refueling rendezvous point, which had been changed after the boats departed Kuwait. The new refueling location meant the boats would have to travel to the limit of their fuel range, and the refueling with a U.S. Coast Guard ship had to take place before nightfall, as the crews lacked training for refueling in the dark on the open sea. As it turned out, as the Americans neared the rendezvous, one of the boats suffered a dramatic drop in oil pressure and the sailors had to stop to repair it, without realizing they were in Iranian territorial waters.
Retired Navy Adm. William Fallon, the former head of Central Command, said the incident at Farsi Island underscored the importance of rigorous supervision when U.S. forces are sent on difficult and risky missions.
“Oversight is really important. When you’re in places where you have people doing dangerous things, you need to have someone paying attention,” he told FP. “The lower the rank, the less experience, the more oversight you need to exercise.”
And he added: “It appears that there wasn’t enough in this case.”
The Navy investigation found that one of the crew failed to follow an order to evade the Iranian boats. However, Nartker told FP that was not the case, and that a coxswain obeyed his order and tried to steer the boat past the Iranian vessels. But the attempt failed.
In the wake of the incident, the Navy has launched an overhaul of its training for sailors in the region and issued a specific message highlighting regulations that commanding officers should treat their vessels as “sovereign territory” at all times.
The investigation also revealed a commanding officer had expressed reservations about undertaking the mission on Jan. 12. The riverine boat crews are trained for short-distance missions along coastal waters or rivers, but commanders at the 5th Fleet demanded that they sail from Kuwait to Bahrain — a 250-nautical mile journey in unfamiliar waters. Before the Jan. 12 transit, Nartker was told the trip to Bahrain was of critical importance. But his crew learned afterward that the boats were ordered to Bahrain for a military exercise, not to ferry commandos on a vital operation.
Nartker, who is now in San Diego with his unit, had a spotless record before the incident and had been praised by his commanding officers as a stand-out among his peers. As a result of the punishment handed down, including an administrative move to revoke his surface warfare officer certification, he will not be able to earn another promotion or even carry out his customary duties on the riverine boats — and that means his career in uniform will soon come to an end.
Nartker faced a situation that every naval officer is trained for but few actually experience — a life-and-death decision with potentially far-reaching geopolitical fallout.
He said his only regret is not pushing harder against the mission in the first place and against his team’s deployment to Kuwait, where he said the sailors were expected to sail long-distances without proper backup and resources.
But he does not regret choosing to talk, instead of shoot, his way out of the showdown with the Iranians. And he said he probably would have faced a possible court martial if he had ordered a deadly attack on the Iranian boats.
“I 110 percent believe I would be in Fort Leavenworth right now if I had ordered to fire on the Iranians,” he said.
Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images