In the U.S. 5th Fleet, perhaps the most important attribute for any commander is forbearance. The Persian Gulf is a powder keg, and the last thing needed are commanders leaning too far forward with their legal prerogatives to engage apparently threatening Iranian forces. To a large degree, it is this forbearance that has kept the situation from exploding since July 1988.
Still, it is not hard to imagine how, on any day, shots could be fired. Iranian forces present genuinely threatening profiles to our forces, and often. When so confronted, our commanders not only possess the inherent right of self-defense, but also are obligated to defend their ships. If convinced that the threat is real, they may engage. In fact, they must engage. They are assured by 5th Fleet, in writing, that they need not take the first hit.
In short, one may wonder why the two Navy riverine boat crews held fire in January when confronted and subsequently captured by the Iranians.
In part, it may be that they understood that if they did engage, and the target was anything other than a terrorist or the first attacker in a general war, they might be justified, and they might survive the investigation, but no one would be grateful.
Examine the history: Believing themselves to be under attack, the crew of the USS Vincennes (CG-49) shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988. Among other consequences, the Vincennes literally was banished from the Gulf, never to return. Ultimately, in this strange, twilight peace with Iran, commanders do not want to be responsible for either accidentally starting a war or wrecking nascent rapprochement. Neither do they wish to become cautionary tales.
With regard to the crews who “surrendered” to the Iranians, their decision to forbear backfired, and badly. These “commanders”—if we can call a junior lieutenant and a chief petty officer commanders—chose to submit to imprisonment rather than risk a fight.
What were they thinking?
Apparently, Article II of the Code of Conduct completely slipped their minds, and they did not seem to grasp the concepts of innocent passage or that as evidently de facto commanders they had specific rights and obligations. Actually, in reading the investigation report, it seems as if these “commanders” were not thinking beyond their overwhelming confusion. Nonetheless, they elected (for whatever reasons) for de-escalation. Though it blew up in their faces, it is interesting that the result was the fragile peace was maintained, and a nuclear deal with Iran was secured days later.
As for these boats’ parent commands, the investigation indicts each, right up to the captain of the task force. These commands are made to look little better than negligent. Regardless, the question is begged as to how this ineptitude escaped either recognition or remediation by their seniors. Is it possible that such incompetence existed in a weird vacuum into which no one had a view or an interest? How could it be that no one was watching the watchmen?
Sometimes, making examples of people is necessary, but this incident is too important—too big—to simply put heads on stakes and move on without asking deeper questions.
Before passing judgment on the boat crews, a few things should be recognized. First, the Code of Conduct talks about “surrender.” Technically, surrender is a word that applies only in armed conflict, and we are not in conflict with Iran. These crews did not surrender; they submitted to an illegal arrest. Second, did these junior persons understand their apparent command-level obligations? If not, why not? Third, they had no contact with their seniors during these events. If they had decided on their own to fight it out, the implications would have been strategic. Do we expect our many lieutenants to unilaterally assume responsibility for that level of decision making? Finally, how does this situation differ from the Hainan Incident of 2001, in which an EP-3 aircrew “surrendered” at gunpoint to the Chinese? How is it that those more senior persons were lauded and decorated upon return, while these boat crews are to be disciplined?
Legal scholars may pore over these issues and find perfectly explicable answers, but to an average observer, much seems amiss. What if the crews had started a gun fight? They may have died martyrs, but they also would have set back U.S.–Iranian relations. Many may find this hard to believe, but more than a few politicians and flag officers are grateful those boat crews did not start shooting.
And we should be asking what to make of that.