Navy Demotes Commander in Charge of Sailors Captured by Iran

This frame grab from Tuesday, January 12, 2016 video by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency, shows detention of American Navy sailors by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf, Iran. The 10 U.S. Navy sailors detained by Iran after their two small boats allegedly drifted into Iranian territorial …
IRIB News Agency via AP

Navy Commander Eric Rasch, formerly executive officer of Coastal Riverine Squadron 3, was removed from his post on Thursday. The Navy Times describes him as “the first officer to be publicly disciplined for errors that led to 10 sailors being captured by Iran after getting lost in the Persian Gulf” on January 12.

The Navy Times describes that incident as “a debacle that nearly scuttled the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal at the 11th hour.” That is a debatable proposition, but there is no doubt the incident was enormously embarrassing for President Obama, coming as it did on the eve of his final State of the Union address.

Although the Obama administration downplayed the importance of the incident at the time, and memorably thanked the Iranians for taking good care of their prisoners, Iran subsequently released photos and videos of its troops mistreating the American sailors in a variety of ways, including forcing them to kneel at gunpoint, recording an apology to Iran from one sailor, and making their female captive wear an Islamic headscarf.

Even releasing the photos of the American captives under duress was an international crime — which Iran has compounded by re-enacting the capture of the sailors in parades.

Rasch was fired because the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command said it had a “loss of confidence” in his command abilities, and he “failed to provide effective leadership” during the crisis. He was actually promoted to command of his unit in April, months after the Iran incident, while the Navy’s preliminary review was still in progress.

The Navy Times adds that Cmdr. Gregory Meyer, commanding officer at the time of the incident but now with Coastal Riverine Group 1, has been placed on “administrative hold” pending the outcome of a review, which will probably be completed by the end of May.

NBC News reports that several other sailors have been given “administrative reprimands.” Further disciplinary actions are anticipated when the Navy’s investigation of the incident is complete.

Congress has been asking why the review is taking so long, with Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain (R-AZ) at one point threatening to subpoena the captured sailors if the Navy did not provide some answers. “That sent Navy officials scrambling to Capitol Hill to brief the findings behind closed doors while the Navy continued its review process,” the Navy Times recalls.

The UK Daily Mail summarizes what is currently known about the January 12 incident:

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters the crew had “misnavigated” into the Islamic republic’s territory and were trying to fix the problem when the revolutionary guard took them into custody.

An initial account said the “planned transit path for the mission was down the middle of the Gulf and not through the territorial waters of any country other than Kuwait and Bahrain.”

That account said the crew stopped when a diesel engine in one of the boats appeared to have a mechanical issue. The second boat also stopped.

At this point they were in Iranian territorial waters, “although it’s not clear the crew was aware of their exact location,” the report said.

While the boats were stopped and the crew was trying to assess the mechanical problem, two small Iranian craft carrying armed personnel approached. Soon after, they were joined by two more Iranian military vessels. A verbal exchange ensued between the Iranians and Americans, but there was no gunfire.

The sailors had been scheduled to meet up with a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Monomoy, in international waters to refuel. But about 10 minutes before the refueling was supposed to take place, the Navy headquarters in Bahrain got a report that Iranians were questioning the crew members.

Soon afterward, the Navy lost communications with the boats.

The Navy launched a large-scale search-and-rescue mission, but it is not clear whether the Americans had already been taken ashore on Farsi Island. The Iranians eventually told the U.S. that the 10 sailors were safe and healthy.

CNN quotes a number of factors from the Navy’s preliminary report that may have contributed to the sailors going off-course, including a lack of familiarity with the area, lack of sleep after spending all night performing maintenance on one of their boats, and problems with their satellite communications gear.

“In addition, they did not conduct a standard operational briefing for themselves prior to setting sail, during which they would have fully reviewed their route and navigation plan,” CNN reports.

CNN further notes that the command center somehow failed to notice that the boats were off-course and headed into Iranian waters, toward what they evidently believed was a small Saudi island, but was in fact Iran’s Farsi Island facility.