News has broken that Iran’s military has captured two U.S. Navy vessels and is holding 10 American sailors. The details of the capture and what caused it are still sketchy, but the Iranian government has assured the White House that the sailors are safe and unharmed as of the time of this writing. The two Navy vessels were named as riverine patrol craft (no confirmation on this or the exact type), and the sailors are allegedly being held on Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. It is unknown whether the boats strayed into Iranian waters.
So a whole lot of unknowns, with the only facts being that the sailors and craft are in the hands of the Iranian military. All of this came just hours (9 p.m. EST) before U.S. President Barack Obama was scheduled to give the final State of the Union address of his administration. Speculation is flying, some suggesting that the capture is the work of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who are looking to scuttle the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the Iranian government. There is also speculation (unfounded and unconfirmed, although the pictures being shown of the vessel do look like a Mark V SOC) that the U.S. military personnel were SEALs or other special operations personnel on either a real-world or training mission.
So what now? Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets are already doing the, “See I told ya so! #irannukedeal” dance. (Senator Tom Cotton is saying just that—repeatedly—on news shows as I write this.) Many more are screaming for immediate and direct military intervention. But what might realistic options to get our sailors and boats back look like?
In order to better understand that, we need to first look at what past options have yielded us, and if history offers any lessons that can be applied to the situation. The First Barbary War (1801–1805) between the United States and the four North African Muslim states known collectively as the Barbary States (made up of Morocco, Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis), came as the result of pirates from the Barbary States seizing American merchant ships and holding the crews for ransom, then demanding the U.S. pay ransom to the Barbary rulers. Not surprisingly, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay up.
He did, however, send a small squadron of three frigates and one schooner, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, with gifts and letters to attempt to maintain peace with the Barbary powers. In the event that war had been declared, Dale was instructed “to protect American ships and citizens against potential aggression,” but Jefferson, “insisted that he was ‘unauthorized by the U.S. constitution without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defense.’” The result was a series of blockades and sea battles that ended in the capture or destruction of countless Barbary ships, but no U.S. sailors returned.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of Derna (April–May 1805), when ex-consul William Eaton, a former Army captain, and Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, led a force of eight U.S. Marines and 500 mercenaries—Greeks from Crete, Arabs, and Berbers—on a march across the desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to assault and capture the Tripolitan city of Derna. This was the first time the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil, and the mission is memorialized in this line from the Marines’ Hymn: “…to the shores of Tripoli.” The efforts and results on the part of the U.S. government and military were swift and immediate, but as with any situation from operations to world politics, the situation (and all of the details) can and should dictate the response.
On January 23, 1968, USS PUEBLO (AGER-2) was attacked in international waters by North Korean forces. Eighty-two surviving crew members were captured and held prisoner for 11 months. During that time, the White House tabled every option from military intervention (it was shelved after the CIA admitted that it could not gain a definite fix on the prisoners’ position within North Korea) to diplomatic screaming (which proved harder to do after it was alleged that some of the crew “confessed” to being ordered to violate North Korean territory and spy). In the end, loose diplomacy (and the alleged intervention of the Soviet Union and China) resulted in the release of the crew.
If the intel is there (and accurate), could the U.S. launch a military rescue effort? Absolutely. We have the capability and—within the military, at least—the will. But these are not pirates in skiffs we are going up against. At its core, the IRGC’s sole mission is the absolute survival of the regime (hence its more formal name, Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution), and that includes preventing embarrassing episodes like allowing a U.S. rescue operation to take back the sailors before the government is ready to release them. I have no doubt that our people would make it home, but I also do not discount the capabilities of the IRGC, and if we decide to undertake this option, we need to completely take this into account and prepare for the possibility of it becoming messy.
The option that will most likely (at least in the public eye) occur will be a diplomatic response. Not the most popular option, and if utilized, is sure to draw the criticism of political and other opponents, even if it results in the return of the sailors. To be honest, I am not advocating either because: A) I don’t have all of the information about the situation, and B) I am not the one who would have to either sit across from my Iranian counterpart, carefully parsing my words, or be one of the military men and women who would be taking part in the operation to execute the rescue. A political solution, while it may (and hopefully would) result in the return of the sailors, is not without its hazards. For one, it would likely embolden Iran. Not necessarily to pull the same stunt again (although that is a strong possibility), but most certainly to tout what they would see as their position of power over the United States on the world stage. Secretary of State John Kerry needs to get to work (and in all probability already has) contacting his Iranian counterpart(s) with hopes to broker a solution without any bloodshed.
Per the media, the families of the sailors have been notified, and they have likely been meeting with military and State Department personnel to ensure that they are kept in the loop and that any communication from the sailors can be passed on to them, if they do not speak to them directly. The CIA and other intelligence apparatus will be working to get a clear picture of the situation and what led up to it, and they will be passing the sitreps up to the 7th floor (where the agency’s higher-ups “live”), and then on to the White House and State. The methods of gathering this intel will include electronic and HUMINT-enabled, but recent counterintelligence coups on the part of Iran against the West will make the latter that much harder. The likely scenario will be a full-court diplomatic press coupled with the forward staging of a rescue force and an increased presence in the AOR. (As if that is possible in the already-crowded Gulf, and which also raises the likelihood of another, worse incident.)
As important as the response is, the language surrounding the incident and future events is key. The status of the sailors depends on the point of view of the U.S. government, the Iranian government, and world watchers, and this can and will influence how the response is tailored. The Iranian government’s press releases have ranged from stating that the sailors were “arrested” to “rescued.” The words used by the talking political, military, and media heads in the U.S. has ranged from “hostage” to “captured,” and as innocuous as the words sound, when they’re written into an intel report, or used in a presidential brief in just the right way, they can mean the difference between a handshake and a flashbang.
President Obama has options, and he may or may not give a hint as to which of them he plans to use or is using during tonight’s State of the Union address (likely not). But whatever he does, he must do so without regard (for now) to nuclear deals and what his detractors say. Right now, at this moment, his focus must be on bringing those sailors home by whatever means he has at his disposal. Whatever he decides, and it should not be done alone, he should have (again, for now) the full backing of both sides of the aisle. The finger-pointing and bickering can wait. Bring them home.