January 13, 2016

Iranian detention of US Navy patrol boats and crews - what happened?

Screen capture from Iranian television showing US Navy sailors being detained

Iran released 10 US Navy sailors and their two CB-90 riverine command boats (RCB, a Swedish-designed fast patrol boat) after they strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf near Farsi Island.

Farsi Island is located in the middle of the Persian Gulf and is used exclusively by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy as an intelligence and surveillance facility. The IRGC is extremely sensitive to anyone approaching the island - the screen capture above is indicative of that sensitivity.

There are a host of questions raised by this incident. First, what were the exact circumstances of the intrusion into Iranian territorial waters? According to the Department of Defense, the two boats were transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain (headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet).

I accept that claim at face value - if the Navy was probing the Iranian defenses on Farsi Island or were conducting reconnaissance of the IRGC facilities there, they certainly would have used different and more capable assets than two undermanned patrol boats (they can carry a crew of up to 20 sailors).

The Iranians claim that at least one of the RCBs suffered "mechanical problems in their navigation system" and the crews acted "unprofessionally" before being detained. The US concurred that there was a mechanical problem with one of the boats. I am not sure what the Iranians mean by "unprofessional" - I assume they needed some excuse for their unnecessary treatment and humiliation of the American sailors. The Iranians certainly did nothing to render assistance to a vessel in distress - detaining the crew and boats was a provocation.

Why would the IRGC Navy want to provoke an incident with the US Navy? I think it has much more to do with internal Iranian politics than the ever-present tensions in the waters of the Persian Gulf. Even the aggressive IRGC does not really want to get into an armed confrontation with the US Navy - especially at a time when the Iranians are trying to finalize the deal on their nuclear program that will be an economic godsend for the Islamic Republic.

That said, the IRGC represents the hardliners in the country, conservatives that do not want an agreement with the West that curbs their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Anyone that believes the IRGC and other hardliners do not eventually want to acquire a nuclear weapons capability is wishing against hope. Their program is perfectly sized for weapons development and much too modest for meaningful energy generation - coupled with their relentless research and development of medium and long range ballistic missiles.

There is tension between the hardliners and the "moderates" (an interesting term to use when describing leaders of the world's major state sponsor of terrorism). Over the past few years, the moderates have held sway, as it appears they did in the resolution of this incident. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - primary architect of the nuclear deal - defused this incident by claiming that the Americans apologized and arranged for orders to be issued to the IRGC to release the two vessels and their crews.

The IRGC statement: "The U.S. Marines [sic], who entered Iran's territorial waters yesterday, were released because it has become clear that their entry was not intentional and after they apologized for the move."

Both Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department spokesman denied that there was an apology. While it may be true that Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry did not apologize, there was probably some form of regret given to the Iranians, likely from the senior officer or noncommissioned officer among the 10 who were detained. If making a statement was all that was needed to insure the safety of the crews and it admitted no wrongdoing, why not apologize and put this behind us? The senior officer's primary duty is the safety of his personnel.

UPDATE: Shortly after I wrote that last paragraph, the Iranians released a video in which the senior US Navy officer being detained by the Iranians did offer an apology while not admitting any wrongdoing.

Now that the boats, and more importantly, the 10 sailors, are back in American custody, the real questions will have to be answered? Here are mine:

- Why were the ships transiting so close to Farsi Island? The distance between the island and the western littoral of the Persian Gulf at that point is in excess of 50 miles (see above map). These are river/coastal patrol boats, not fleet combat units.

- If the two boats were transiting close to Farsi Island (for whatever reason), Iranian sensitivity about the IRGC facility is well-known. Why were the ships not part of more potent formation, or why was there no accompanying aerial assets in the area? Why were the boats so lightly manned?

- Once one of the RCBs experienced a mechanical problem, what was the exact sequence of events? Was it possible to stop and avoid entering Iranian waters while awaiting assistance from other US or allied assets in the area?

- Once approached by the IRGC gunboats, did US authorities contact the Iranians to explain the problem, request assistance and/or prepare to protect the American sailors? What are the standard operating procedures when US Navy vessels are confronted by the unpredictable, aggressive IRGC?

Something went wrong yesterday in the Persian Gulf, mistakes were certainly made - putting 10 US sailors and two armed patrol boats at risk. Once the sailors are debriefed, perhaps the Navy will tell us what happened and who will be held accountable.