An Iranian naval commander said Tuesday that Iran retrieved thousands of pages of information from devices used by U.S. sailors who were briefly detained in January. The claim, published by Iranian state media, marks the latest example of how the authorities in Tehran has kept an incident considered embarrassing to the United States in the media in the two months since it occurred.
Iran detained 10 sailors for about 16 hours beginning Jan. 12 after they veered into Iranian territorial waters near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. The sailors, traveling from Kuwait to Bahrain in two riverine command boats, were taken into custody at gunpoint by armed members Iranian troops, which has maintained a naval base on Farsi Island for decades. The sailors “mis-navigated” into Iranian waters, according to the preliminary results of a Navy investigation.
The new report cites Gen. Ali Razmjou, a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, saying the information obtained from laptop computers, GPS devices and maps amounts to about 13,000 pages. It is not clear if any of it is classified. U.S. military officials have said previously that the only equipment taken was two digital SIM cards in satellite phones.
The sailors were released after Secretary of State John F. Kerry intervened, ending a potential crisis with a country that has a history of holding Americans captive for years. But Iran, angering U.S. officials, has continued to exploit the incident for propaganda purposes.
Showing images of U.S. sailors held at gunpoint
Images released by Iranian media in the hours after the sailors were detained infuriated some U.S. officials, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter. Carter’s initial remarks were restrained, but he said a few days later that he was “very, very angry” about the detention, and that the U.S. Navy would have acted differently.
“To see our guys in that situation on Iranian TV, that’s really not okay,” Carter said.
Critics of the Obama administration said the incident amounted to a “propaganda bonanza” for Tehran.
Releasing video of a U.S. sailor in captivity apologizing for his actions
In the immediate aftermath of the the detention, Iran released a video that showed a U.S. sailor saying he and his colleagues had been treated well in captivity and apologizing for what they had done.
— Abas Aslani (@abasinfo) January 13, 2016
“It was a mistake. That was our fault. We apologize for our mistake,” the American said.
He was identified later by his mother as Lt. David Nartker, according to the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. The apology has prompted some critics to say he should be court-martialed, noting that the Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces says that a service member should never surrender of his own free will and should continue to resist by all means necessary if captured.
Carter said that what was depicted was shown “through the lens of the Iranian media” and argued that it was important to allow the sailors to speak for themselves about what happened.
“I think you’ve got to give these guys the opportunity to tell us what was really going on and to get some context before we can know,” Carter said.
Distributing video of an Iranian drone flying over a U.S. aircraft carrier the same day
About two weeks after the sailors were released, Iran released video showing it had flown a drone over the USS Harry S. Truman, the aircraft carrier the United States currently has deployed in the Persian Gulf. Cmdr. William Marks, a U.S. Navy spokesman, said at the time that a U.S. Navy helicopter confirmed the drone was harmless before it was allowed to fly over, but called the action “abnormal and unprofessional.”
The flyover occurred Jan. 12 — the same day that the U.S. sailors were detained elsewhere in the Gulf.
Awarding ‘medals of conquest’ to Iranian commanders who detained the sailor
At the end of January, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was shown in photographs released on his Twitter accounts awarding valor medals to the Iranian commanders who detained the U.S. sailors. They were called “intruding U.S. marines” in one tweet, although all of them served in the Navy.
Order of Fat'h given by Chief Commander of Armed forces to IRGC Navy commanders who captured intruding U.S. marines. pic.twitter.com/1gkGz2bh2p
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 31, 2016
The English-language Tehran Times called it a “medal of conquest.”
Distributing video of a U.S. sailor crying in captivity
Iran drew a rebuke from the Navy last month after another video showed a U.S. sailor crying while in captivity. Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for Naval Forces Central Command, said “we are disgusted by the exploitation of our Sailors in Iranian propaganda,” in a statement released to the independent Navy Times.
Stephens added that it was “outrageous and unacceptable” that the sailors were held at gunpoint, and that the Iranians should have offered assistance with the mechanical problem they faced.
“Professional mariners understand that it is a duty and obligation to assist other mariners who suffer mechanical problems or who find themselves off track at sea,” Stephens told Navy Times. “The responsible action for the Iranians to have taken upon discovering our [riverine command boats] in their waters would have been to calmly and peacefully direct our RCBs out of their territorial waters or offer assistance if the apparent mechanical issues in one of the boats prevented them from departing immediately.”
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Iran’s Ayatollah pins ‘medal of conquest’ on commanders who detained U.S. sailors