It is a telling that the initial reaction of the Obama administration over the detention of two Navy patrol boats in the Persian Gulf was one of effusive praise that the Iranian Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was to only hold the sailors and hulls overnight and to “promptly” release them back into U.S. custody. A prompt release is a “good story” gushed Secretary of State John Kerry to Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif in one of several phone calls. Later Kerry expressed “gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in quickly resolving this matter…. That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”
It is likely that Obama, now in the waning months of his presidency, instructed Kerry to do anything necessary to secure the release of the two patrols from the Iranians, short of parading around Tehran naked and waiving an apology banner back and forth. That the Iranians could have made the patrol’s detention a media circus for weeks (as it did in a similar situation with the British navy) or even months as it did in the U.S. Embassy affair in late 1970s, was undoubtedly a worry for the U.S. president. The Guard still took the opportunity of videotaping the whole episode and extracting an apology/confession from the senior NCO in the hours they held the sailors on Farsi Island. The one female sailor was even required to wear a headscarf while on camera.
The only thought I had when learning of the whole sorry episode on the day it occurred, was of amazement at the underlying gross incompetence and/or dereliction of duty. Not necessarily of the sailors aboard the patrol boats, whom were likely all low level noncoms, but of the naval officers in charge of the fleet in the Persian Gulf. What combination of political meddling (in Navy affairs), misguided Navy doctrine, shortcomings in training, short sidedness by fleet brass, and stupidity by the officers directly involved let to this outcome? How the hell in all the years of patrolling the Persian Gulf did the U.S. Navy miss out on Iran’s prickly defense of their territorial claim to offshore waters, their lack of regard for the proper conduct of a mature state in international dealings in general, or their rabid hostility to the U.S. in specific?
We’ll probably never find out. The Navy’s track record on these incidents is less than stellar. Consider the USS Pueblo seizure by the North Koreans in 1968, or the EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft seizure by the Chinese on Hainan Island in 2001. In both cases the Navy quietly investigated the incidents and swept them (as much as they could) under the rug. Neither the CO of the Pueblo or the pilot of EP-3 were punished, and both officers quietly finished their shortened careers. No public acknowledgement of senior command responsibility was ever made in either incident. There were mitigating circumstances–the officers and crew of the Pueblo had been brutally tortured, while the pilot of the EP-3E felt that saving his crew by landing on a foreign airbase was more important than protecting intel by making a risky crash landing into the sea. Nevertheless in both cases it was obvious that the Navy had failed in its command responsibilities in multiple ways, but did not want to admit it.
Perhaps the Navy will learn something constructive from its most recent command lapse, whether they want to say so publicly or not. For the sake of national security, I sure hope so.