U.S. Navy Officers in Crosshairs Over Iran Debacle

A military investigation into a bungled mission in the Persian Gulf could end the careers of several officers.

A US Navy crew mans a heavy machine gun on the deck of a Riverine Command Boat (RCB)  as it tails the USS Ponci somewhere in the Arabian Sea, on May 13, 2013, on the first day of 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)
A US Navy crew mans a heavy machine gun on the deck of a Riverine Command Boat (RCB) as it tails the USS Ponci somewhere in the Arabian Sea, on May 13, 2013, on the first day of 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 U.S. Navy is weighing whether to punish several officers and sailors for the botched mission that resulted in two boats inadvertently straying into Iranian waters, embarrassing Washington and handing Tehran a propaganda victory, Foreign Policy has learned.

Based on the findings of a five-month internal investigation, naval commanders are reviewing potential punishment for nine individuals in connection with the case, Navy officials told FP. Unlike some other high-profile cases in the military, six of the nine service members in the crosshairs are officers, not lower-ranking enlisted personnel. One of those under intense scrutiny serves as the commodore overseeing a task force in the Middle East with more than 1,000 personnel, Capt. Kyle Moses.

“The investigation is complete and is being referred to the appropriate commands for adjudication,” said Navy spokesman Cmdr. Mike Kafka, who declined to comment further on the case.

The Jan. 12 incident grabbed headlines around the world and called into question the Navy’s ability to safely traverse a strategically important waterway that could be the site of fierce fighting in the event of any future military confrontation with Iran. It also threatened to spark new tensions between Washington and Tehran just as a landmark nuclear deal was slated to go into effect. In the end, the incident was resolved peacefully, though at a steep public relations cost for the White House.

The investigation found the mission was plagued by communication failures, shortcomings with maintenance and training, missteps by members of the boat crews, and a lack of rigorous oversight by commanding officers, Navy officials said. When the boats veered off course, no one at an operations center warned the sailors they were heading towards Iranian waters around Farsi Island.

The sailors had set out from Kuwait after noon local time on what was supposed to be a routine mission to Bahrain. But they had no experience navigating across the Persian Gulf in their small riverine command boats, which are only about 50 feet long, and were not accustomed to traveling such a long distance. Before they departed, the crew also had to cannibalize a third boat to make last-minute repairs.

After having sailed into Iranian waters without realizing it, one of the American boats — the one that had to be fixed the day before — broke down. As the sailors tried to fix the bolt on the engine mount, two Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrols arrived, with their weapons pointed at the U.S. sailors. Soon a third ship showed up, followed by a fourth ship that was larger and more heavily armed. The Americans decided they would surrender to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops rather than try to shoot their way out.

The Iranians filmed 10 U.S. sailors kneeling with their hands on their heads, while the skipper of the boats, Lt. David Nartker, apologized for their navigation error, and then promptly released the videos.

Secretary of State John Kerry secured the release of the sailors within 16 hours, following a flurry of phone calls to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. But Republican lawmakers accused the administration of caving in to the Iranians and withholding key details about what had actually caused the miscue.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Iran had violated international law by seizing the boats and accused the Obama administration of dragging its feet in divulging details of the episode. McCain even threatened to subpoena the sailors involved if the White House and the Pentagon failed to cooperate.

Since then, McCain and other lawmakers have received regular updates on the case from Navy officers and the Republican senator has dropped threats of a subpoena. The Navy’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, is due to publicly release the findings of the five-month investigation next week at the Pentagon and announce changes in procedures designed to ensure the blunder is not repeated.

Richardson will also outline the specific personnel being disciplined in the case, as well as their punishments.

People familiar with the investigation said it wouldn’t conclude that the mission itself was misguided, but instead that personnel at various levels failed to carry out their duties properly.

“If you are going to do these types of missions, then the right training, preparation, and oversight has to occur,” one Navy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP. “There are oversight lessons learned, communication lessons learned, and operational lessons learned,” the official said, citing the investigation.

When the sailors were released, the White House said it showed the benefits of diplomacy with Iran. Kerry was able to take advantage of a working relationship that he has forged with Iran’s foreign minister, Zarif, through the course of negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program, officials said.

But Iran also milked the incident for maximum propaganda value, releasing various video clips of the crew in the hours and days after the sailors were freed. One clip showed a sailor crying apparently in relief after hearing of his imminent release.

A few weeks after the incident, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, awarded the Fath medal for victory to the chief of the navy of the Revolutionary Guards and four commanders involved in the capture of American boats.

The decision whether to impose disciplinary action on the personnel involved is up to two top naval officers. The head of Fifth Fleet, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, will decide the fate of Moses, the most senior officer named, who oversees Task Force 56, which includes the riverine boat crews, along with his deputy. The head of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, will decide whether seven service members in the riverine boat squadron should be punished, including the skipper of the two boats, Nartker, and two other crew members.

One officer in the squadron has already been punished over the incident. Cmdr. Eric Rasch, who was the executive officer for Coastal Riverine Squadron 3, which included the boats that sailed into Iran’s territorial waters, was relieved of command last month.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, June 23, 2016: Two senior naval officers will decide on possible punishment for the service members involved. Due to inaccurate information provided by officials, a previous version of this article mistakenly stated that a third officer, the head of Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, would decide on possible disciplinary measures for some of the service members.