The skipper of two riverine boats captured by Iran last year will get to remain in the Navy after all. A naval administrative board rejected a request from commanders to force him out of the service.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
The skipper of two small U.S. naval boats that strayed into Iranian waters last year will be allowed to stay in the military, a naval panel has ruled, rejecting a recommendation from commanders for the officer to be kicked out of the Navy.
The decision on Tuesday represented a victory for 28-year-old Lt. David Nartker, who has defended his actions and argued that he prevented a potential conflagration with Iran over a navigational error.
The ruling was handed down in Imperial Beach, Calif. by a three-member board of inquiry, an administrative panel comprised of fellow naval officers. The Navy had urged the board to have Nartker discharged or “separated” from the service. But the board concluded that while Nartker had made mistakes, his misconduct was not serious enough to merit forcing him out of the Navy.
“It’s an exoneration by the rank and file of the Navy,” Phillip Lowry, the officer’s defense attorney, told Foreign Policy. “His peers have looked at this, and they have decided that this doesn’t warrant separation, they want to keep him as a colleague,” he said.
Nartker was at the center of a routine mission on Jan. 12 that turned into a high-profile embarrassment for the Navy and threatened to spiral into a volatile international crisis. Two riverine boats under his command were ordered to sail from Kuwait to Bahrain on short notice, requiring them to travel a distance much longer than the crew were accustomed to in unfamiliar waters. One of the two boats broke down near Farsi Island within Iran’s territorial waters. The ten-member crew were captured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and held for 16 hours until a flurry of phone calls between top diplomats in Washington and Tehran secured their release unharmed. Tehran, however, issued a video showing the crew kneeling in surrender and a clip of Nartker apologizing for sailing into Iranian waters.
The video caused outrage in Congress, where Republicans accused the Obama administration of adopting a groveling tone with Iran after the sailors were freed. In an interview with FP last year, Nartker said he believed the effect of the video from Iran prompted the top brass to turn him into a scapegoat.
A subsequent Navy investigation found fault with the crew but also blasted commanders on shore for assigning them a task without enough time and resources and for failing to track the boats as they veered into Iranian territorial waters.
The U.S. Navy was not immediately available for comment on the case.
The Navy personnel were captured just as the United States and other major powers were on the verge of lifting some economic sanctions against Tehran in return for imposing restrictions on the country’s nuclear program, as part of a landmark deal.
President Donald Trump as a candidate vowed to take a tougher approach to Iran and often castigated the Iran nuclear agreement. But administration officials say there are no plans to explicitly reject the deal and instead the White House is looking at a stricter enforcement of the accord coupled with a more rigorous applications of existing sanctions.
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