Inside the U.S. Navy’s Iran Fiasco

From mechanical problems to communications breakdowns, new details on how 10 U.S. sailors blundered into Iranian waters and almost sparked an international crisis.

US Navy crew cruise on top of a Riverine Command Boat (RCB) at dusk some where in the Arabian Sea May 13, 2013, on the first day of the the biggest mine countermeasures exercise in the Arabian Gulf. The US Navy along with other 40 nations are conducting the games.    AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI        (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Navy crew cruise on top of a Riverine Command Boat (RCB) at dusk some where in the Arabian Sea May 13, 2013, on the first day of the the biggest mine countermeasures exercise in the Arabian Gulf. The US Navy along with other 40 nations are conducting the games. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

The 10 American sailors were on an unfamiliar assignment and running behind schedule.

Setting off from Kuwait en route to Bahrain, the U.S. sailors had never navigated across the Persian Gulf in small patrol boats, and they were unaccustomed to traveling such a long distance in vessels designed for shorter missions in coastal waters or rivers.

Their routine mission on Jan. 12 turned into a nightmare when they strayed into Iranian waters near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) surrounded the two U.S. boats and made the crew members kneel in surrender with their hands on their head. Iran released a video of the humiliating scene and held the sailors for 16 hours, before a flurry of phone calls between top diplomats in Washington and Tehran secured their release.

The incident, which remains under military investigation, has raised troubling questions not only about the crew’s performance but also about the U.S. Navy’s operations and readiness in one of the world’s most strategic and volatile waterways — where American ships have sailed for decades.

Mechanical problems, communication breakdowns, and a lack of navigation training or preparation all played a role in the blunder, Foreign Policy has learned, based on interviews with officials and others familiar with the case.

Coming just days before a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran entered into force, the capture of the sailors carried the potential to escalate the situation into a full-blown international crisis. And the incident turned into a political firestorm in Washington. Critics of President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran have seized on the administration’s handling of the incident and its aftermath, citing it as further proof that Washington is pulling its punches with Tehran and withholding details from lawmakers.

Officials told FP that the results of an initial U.S. Navy investigation into the case were turned over this week to the commander of the 5th Fleet, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, who oversees naval forces in the Middle East. The commander has 30 days to review the findings, decide if more investigatory work is required, and recommend if the crew members or their superior officers should be prosecuted or reprimanded. Other senior officers will then review those recommendations, culminating with a final decision by the Navy’s chief or deputy chief.

Several people — including Obama administration officials, congressional staffers, and others familiar with the details of the incident — discussed the case with FP on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has accused the administration of dragging its feet and demanded that it provide a full briefing to lawmakers. Otherwise, he says, he will subpoena the sailors and potentially drag them into embarrassing public hearings.

The sailors in Kuwait who were captured by the Iranians were trained to operate riverine command boats, or RCBs — small, speedy craft about 50 feet long that are used to transport special operations forces, patrol coastal waters, or escort larger ships. The sailors, under the command of 27-year-old Lt. David Nartker, were ordered to Bahrain to take part in an exercise and had less than 24 hours to prepare. Only one of three boats at their disposal was in working order. The crew members had to cannibalize one of the broken vessels to get an engine part so they could have a second boat to sail.

The trip required the crews to travel about 240 nautical miles, more than twice the usual distance they were accustomed to. That meant the two riverine boats would have to refuel at sea roughly midway through the journey, said one U.S. official who confirmed details of the trip.

Due to problems getting their communications gear to work, the sailors set off from Kuwait three hours late. The late start put pressure on the sailors as they tried calculate how long before they would need to refuel in daylight and the optimum speed for their boats, according to a second person familiar with the sailors’ accounts.

The boat crews asked that a refueling tanker meet them before nightfall, as they were not trained for refueling in the dark. Arranging a rendezvous proved difficult because the sailors had no direct communication with the tanker and had to relay messages through a U.S. operations center in an undisclosed location in the region. As the boats sought to meet up with the refueling tanker, they mistakenly ventured into Iranian territorial waters, just west of tiny Farsi Island.

The U.S. sailors were using a GPS device to navigate, but Farsi Island is so small that it did not appear on their screen when it was zoomed out to a wider view. As they drifted within sight of land, the Americans did not even know that it was Farsi Island, said the person familiar with the sailors’ account.

Throughout the cruise, the positions and direction of the two boats were automatically relayed to the operations center every 30 minutes via an electronic tracking device, the U.S. official said. But for reasons that remain unclear, commanding officers or others at the operations center did not inform the boat crews that they were headed in the wrong direction.

Traveling at a swift pace, the two U.S. vessels might have passed through the area without encountering any Iranian patrol craft. But one of the American boats — the one that needed repair back in Kuwait — broke down. As the sailors worked to revive the boat’s engine near Farsi Island, two IRGC patrol boats showed up, weapons pointed at the Americans. One American sailor waved a wrench in the air, to signal they had engine trouble and had no hostile intent. But the Iranians showed no interest in helping out: Soon another Iranian vessel arrived at the scene, followed by a fourth ship that was larger and more heavily armed.

As the Iranians encircled the boats, the U.S. sailors managed to repair the faulty engine. Now the Americans had a choice. With 50-caliber machine guns and GAU-19 miniguns on their boats, they outarmed the Iranians. And their RCBs were bigger than the Iranian patrol craft. But escaping would mean opening fire on the Iranian forces or ramming their vessels — actions that could lead to a wider conflagration. The young officer in charge, Nartker, opted to cooperate.

In the tense encounter, there was one comical moment. As the Iranians searched through gear and equipment, they held up an iPhone 6 charger with an accusatory air. It took some time for the U.S. sailors to convince the Iranians that it was merely a charger, featuring a new design for the latest iPhone, and not a hi-tech weapon.

After being ordered to kneel with their hands on their heads, the Americans were taken to nearby Farsi Island and questioned one by one. They were served meals. At one point, the food was removed and served again so the scene could be recorded for the camera. Although the sailors were blindfolded and used as propaganda for Iranian state television, the Americans said they were not physically abused or otherwise mistreated.

Meanwhile, back at the U.S. operations center, commanders saw that the tracking device for the riverine boats had put them in Iranian waters near Farsi Island. The U.S. commanders ordered a cruiser, the USS Anzio, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, and a British naval ship to head over to the boats and lend them assistance. But the timing of the response — and whether commanders were aware that the American boats had encountered Iranian patrol craft — remains unclear. By the time the rescue party arrived, the U.S. sailors were already in the hands of the Iranians.

After Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, worked out the release of the Americans in a series of phone calls, the sailors were told that they were about to be freed. The Iranians filmed one crew member crying in relief at the news.

More Iranian military officers and officials — possibly intelligence officers — arrived to oversee the release of the Americans. As senior figures looked at their watches impatiently, a lower level officer insisted on one last question-and-answer session on camera for the American skipper, Nartker.

“It was a mistake that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake,” Nartker said on camera. “It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water.”

It’s not clear if his videotaped apology violated the code of conduct for U.S. service members — or if the code even applies to the situation, as the United States is not in an armed conflict with Iran. The televised apology was cited by American political conservatives as proof of a policy of “appeasement” toward Tehran. But congressional aides and U.S. officials said they believe the thrust of the military investigation into the incident likely will focus more on what led to the navigation error, rather than what was said to the Iranians on videotape.

In the days following the sailors’ release, Navy officials said the boat crews had made a navigation error. But as more details of the incident emerge, officials said it is not necessarily a cut-and-dried case and that commanders in the area are also under scrutiny — not just the sailors who were captured.

“We’re not looking for a scapegoat here. The intent of the investigation is to not look only at the sailors involved but the chain of command as well,” a U.S. official told FP. “Accountability is important, but even more important is what we can learn from this and [to] make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The case has raised a litany of unanswered questions for the military: Did the Navy properly maintain the riverine boats? Did commanding officers ensure the sailors were properly trained in advance? Did the boat crews receive a briefing on how to navigate the Persian Gulf? Who was watching out for the boats as they made their way from Kuwait and began to veer into Iranian waters?

On Capitol Hill, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been pressing the Obama administration to give a more detailed account of what occurred in the Persian Gulf in January, particularly once the IRGC arrived at the scene.

Pentagon officials said they were committed to keeping Congress informed, but the ongoing investigation placed some limits on what information could be divulged.

That stance has irritated some lawmakers.

“There is frustration in Congress because there’s been a hesitation [by the administration] to share important details about what transpired, especially related to the detention of Americans,” said a Senate staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Photo credit: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images

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