The Cable

U.S. Navy Officer Sacked Over Iran Incident

The Pentagon relieved a commander who was in charge of the river boats that strayed into Iranian waters in January. It could be the first of several such punishments.

US Navy crew man machine-guns as they stand aboard a Riverine Command Boat off the coast of Bahrain's Salman port, near Manama, on May 12, 2013, one day before the start of the biggest exercise of mine countermeasure maneuvers 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 man machine-guns as they stand aboard a Riverine Command Boat off the coast of Bahrain's Salman port, near Manama, on May 12, 2013, one day before the start of the biggest exercise of mine countermeasure maneuvers 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 U.S. Navy said Thursday that an officer overseeing two boats that mistakenly veered into Iranian waters in January has been relieved of command over the embarrassing incident, which nearly triggered a dangerous confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

Cmdr. Eric Rasch, who was the executive officer for Coastal Riverine Squadron 3, which included the boats that sailed into Iran’s territorial waters on Jan. 12, will be reassigned to another post, the Navy said in a statement.

Rasch was removed “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” it said, though such an outcome often spells the end of a military career.

Navy officials said the punishment was based on the preliminary results of a military investigation that is expected to wrap up later this month. But by moving against an officer who was not on the vessels that strayed off course, the Navy signaled it was determined to hold the military chain of command accountable in the case.

After entering Iranian waters due to a navigational error, ten U.S. sailors were detained by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for 16 tense hours. In a video released by Tehran, the Americans were shown kneeling with their hands on their head, and footage later showed one of the sailors crying.

The crew were not accustomed to operating at such a long distance — about 240 nautical miles from Kuwait to Bahrain — in their riverine command boat, or RCB, a small, swift, craft about 50 feet long used to transport special operations forces, escort larger ships and patrol rivers, ports, and coastal waters. And it was the first time for the crew to be navigating through the Persian Gulf.

One of their boats broke down after they sailed close to Farsi Island, and the crew were repairing the vessel when Iranian forces showed up and surrounded them.

Foreign Policy previously reported that mechanical problems, communication breakdowns, and a lack of navigation training or preparation all played a role in the botched mission, according to officials and others familiar with the case.

The incident took place just days before a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran entered into force, and the detention of the sailors had the potential to mushroom into a volatile international crisis. In the end, phone calls between top diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, defused the situation and the sailors were released unharmed.

The handling of the incident and its aftermath sparked criticism from President Barack Obama’s opponents in Congress, who said it illustrated how the administration has taken a soft line with Tehran. Some lawmakers also accused the White House of initially withholding some details about the case.

The episode has been closely reviewed by the Navy’s top brass, as it raised doubts about the force’s operations and readiness in one of the world’s most strategic waterways.

 

Photo Credit:  MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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