The Navy has canned the officer in charge of the unit whose two small boats and 10 sailors were seized by Iran in January, marking the service’s first public disciplinary action in an international fracas that threatened the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.
The Navy Expeditionary Combat Command removed Commander Eric Rasch for a “loss of confidence” in his ability to command following a preliminary inquiry, according to a Navy statement.
At the time of the Jan. 12 seizure, Rasch was serving as the No. 2 officer of Coastal Riverine Squadron 3, a unit in charge of small, coastal vessels. Rasch’s boss, Commander Gregory Meyer, has been has been put on “administrative hold,” meaning his career is in limbo while the Navy’s official probe into the seizure continues.
The episode was a major embarrassment for the U.S. Navy, and the service has taken its time to investigate what took place. The 10 sailors aboard two riverine boats apparently strayed into Iranian territorial waters off Farsi Island in the middle of the Persian Gulf as they tried to sail from Kuwait to Bahrain.
Accosted by vessels manned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranians videotaped the nine American men and one woman on their knees. Then they were taken to the heavily-defended Iranian island where they were held until a flurry of high-level diplomacy lead to their release the next day. While in custody, one of the sailors apologized on videotape for the snafu, which led Iran to award medals to its sailors who seized the Americans.
“I have huge problems with the Iranians boarding our vessels, pointing guns at our sailors,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel, told TIME in February. “I have huge problems with awarding medals to people for having done that.”
Navy officials have said that engine or navigational-gear malfunctions, apparently combined with the sailors’ inattention, led them to drift into Iranian waters. If that proves to be the case, congressional aides have said, it would represent an indictment of not only poor maintenance in one of the world’s most notorious trouble spots, but a failure of seamanship. Navy officials say higher-ranking officers are likely to face punishment when the service completes its formal investigation sometime in the next month.
Navy officials stress that the U.S. got its sailors safely home, despite whatever international humiliation the world’s mightiest military might have endured in the process.
Retired Marine General Jim Mattis, who led U.S. Central Command (which includes Iran) from 2010 to 2013, told TIME last month that he doesn’t know which nation came out on top. “I don’t think it’s clear either way,” Mattis said. “But obviously, it was not something that I could just chalk up to a win on the United States’ side.”