Expert: Apology helped expedite release of US sailors

By Josh Sweigart | Dayton Daily News, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 16, 2016

Amid relief that Navy Lt. David Nartker — who has family in the Dayton area — and the nine sailors under his command were safely released this week from Iranian custody after less than a day, images of the service members treated like prisoners and video of Nartker apologizing on Iranian television drew critics from across the country.

The photos of American Navy sailors on their knees, hands behind their heads, in the custody of Iranian armed forces was a disturbing spectacle to Kim Bullock of Kettering.

“That just makes me upset,” said Bullock, who served on the U.S.S. California in the Persian Gulf during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. He felt the Iranians went out of their way to humiliate the Americans.

“They didn’t have to release those photos of the guys,” he said. “To treat them like prisoners, that doesn’t fly with me.”

But it could’ve been much worse, said Vaughn Shannon, a Middle East expert at Wright State University.

He noted that the 1979 crisis lasted 444 days. In 2007, Iran kept a British navy crew nearly two weeks. Nartker’s crew, by comparison, was held for 16 hours.

The difference, Shannon says, is that this week’s incident came as the U.S. and Iran prepared to implement a diplomatic deal in which America lifted some sanctions, and in exchange Iran scaled back and increased transparency of its nuclear program.

“I think the administration took a cool, diplomatic approach and got results and this is going to go down as a footnote to history as opposed to a major crisis,” Shannon said.

That historical footnote certainly will include Nartker’s apology released Thursday by the Iranian media.

“It was a mistake, that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake,” Nartker told an Iranian interviewer in the video.

It’s unclear what led Nartker to make the statement. But some in the national press accuse Nartker of violating the U.S. military code of conduct prohibiting giving information to captors.

“That was aid and comfort to the enemy. He should be court-martialed,” Fox News military analyst Ralph Peters on Thursday.

Nartker grew up in Illinois, according to Chicago-area media. His says he lives in San Diego.

Nartker’s father, William, told the Dayton Daily Times he would like to hold off on commenting until he has had a chance to speak to his son.

Considering the other diplomatic wheels already in motion, Shannon said the release would have happened without Nartker’s apology, but it sped up the process.

“Things could’ve definitely gone differently without an apology,” he said.

“For them (Iran) it’s a way to say, ‘We want the world to know America has done something wrong,’ as opposed to Iran doing something wrong,” Shannon said. “It surely expedited things. The question is whether people think that was worth what happened.”

U.S. officials say there was no official apology by the U.S. government for the incident. Military officials said the two small riverine command boats carrying Nartker and the rest of the crew from Kuwait to Bahrain apparently made a “navigational error” leading them into Iranian water, followed by an engine problem that prevented them from evading capture by the Iranians.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told the Los Angeles Times that the video did not violate the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war, because the U.S. is not at war with Iran. But he made clear his unease.

“The video, on the face of it, is — it’s difficult to watch, and there’s no question about that,” he told reporters. “And nobody likes to see our sailors in that position. I can’t speak for the motivations for why they did it, why they put it out there, if they did it for propaganda purposes, I would — we would certainly join in those that are expressing concerns about that. I mean, that’s, you know, that’s less than helpful.”

Ken Hagens of Kettering, who served in the Navy in the 1960s, said the Iranians releasing images of U.S. sailors in captivity was “uncalled for.” But he doesn’t hold the apology against Nartker.

“If you’re held prisoner, you tell them whater you need if it’s going to help you survive,” he said.

The Associate Press contributed to this report.


©2016 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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This picture released by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, shows detained American Navy sailors in an undisclosed location in Iran.


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