Retired Adm. James A. Lyons — January 28, 2016
Navy mishap near Iranian waters boosts the image of Obama diplomacy
“Implementation day” of the disastrous nuclear agreement with Iranand the lifting of sanctions was scheduled for Jan. 16. However, Iranseized two U.S. Navy47-foot Riverine Command Boats (RCBs) on a routine transit from Kuwait to Bahrain on Jan. 12 for apparently violating Iran’s claimed 12 nautical mile territorial waters around Farsi Island. Iranian Revolutionary Guards boarded and captured the boats without a shot being fired. They then humiliated the 10 U.S. Navy sailors by making them kneel with their hands behind their heads in a submission position and distributed videos of this degrading scene.
How did this debacle happen? Based on the latest released information, the two Navy RCBs were transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain, home port for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and their immediate command, Task Force 56. The two boats departed Kuwait at 12:23 p.m. local time for a supposedly routine transit. During the crossing, they were scheduled to rendezvous with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy for refueling at about 5 p.m.
The rendezvous never took place. Under normal circumstances the Coast Guard cutter would have been trying to contact and determine the RCBs position well before the scheduled refueling. Information would have been exchanged on fuel requirements and whether they had any other requirements. Likewise, the boats should also have been trying to establish contact with the cutter. It appears no contact was ever established. This is unusual for a routine fueling operation.
We need to know what action the Coast Guard cutter took when the scheduled refueling did not take place. When the cutter couldn’t establish communications with the RCBs, did they contact Task Force 56, Fifth Fleet or other U.S. naval ships in the area? Such action should have taken place well before the boats were approached by the two small Iranian center-console craft at 5:10 p.m., the time when the RCBs apparently contacted Task Force 56 or Fifth Fleet to report the incident. All communications were lost shortly thereafter.
At 5:15 p.m., the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Anzio received a communication from the Iranians “that the RCBs and their crew were in Iranian custody at Farsi Island and were safe and healthy.” The Navy’s initial operational report indicates that the RCBs, for some unknown reason, deviated from their planned track en route to the refueling rendezvous. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Iran has the capability to interfere with onboard GPS navigation systems. However, the boats have other backup systems, including satellite communications.
It has now been reported that one of the RCBs had developed an engine problem, which caused the boats to stop and troubleshoot the problem. Why they stopped makes no sense to me, since these are dual-engine boats. Even if they lost both engines, standard procedure is to take the boat in tow and proceed on their way.
While stopped, they apparently drifted into Iran’s territorial waters and were approached by two Iranian small craft followed by two more boats. What followed remains unclear. One report indicates there was a verbal exchange, but no shots were fired. For some unexplained reason, the officer in charge of the RCBs let the armed Iranians come aboard and take control. Unbelievable.
Let me be very clear: Surrender is not in the Navy’s DNA. We don’t know what role the restricted rules of engagement played in this incident. We also don’t know if the boats were directed not to resist. None of this makes sense. The subsequent photographs and videos of our sailors kneeling with their hands behind their heads in a position of submission was not only humiliating, but illegal.
What Iran did in commandeering the RCBs and taking the crews hostage was illegal under the internationally recognized Law of the Sea rules. Even if there was an engine problem, this situation should have been treated as a “right of innocent transit.” No hostile intent was displayed. Any ship, commercial or warship, has the right of innocent transit through territorial waters as long as the passage is continuous and expeditious with no hostile intent.
The implication is that because of Secretary of State John Kerry’s developing relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, fostered by the long, drawn-out nuclear agreement, these two officials were able to resolve this incident quickly through telephone diplomacy. The two boats with their crews were released 15 hours later. Then on Jan. 15, we have the dramatic announcement that Iran was releasing five American hostages as part of a prisoner swap for seven Iranian criminals held in U.S. prisons who were pardoned by President Obama, plus the removal of 14 other Iranian criminals and terrorists from the Interpol wanted list.
What’s not mentioned by the administration is that it has been reported that Oman paid $500,000 ransom for the release of each American hostage. This is in addition to the $1.7 billion paid to Iran for undelivered military equipment in the 1970s plus the $150 billion in sanctions relief. Of course, no money is going to the surviving families of those Americans murdered by Iran’s terrorist actions. This included the families of the Sept. 11 tragedy for which Iran was found guilty by Judge George Daniels in the New York District Court in December 2011.
The administration is attempting to sell the idea to the American public that its fraudulent nuclear agreement has engendered diplomatic normalization between the U.S. secretary of state and Iran’s foreign minister. In World War II, it was said the Soviet Union had Harry Hopkins in the White House to look out for its interests. Now Iran has President Obama.
This column was originally published at The Washington Times.