Mr. Zatarain is the author of Tanker War: America’s First Conflict with Iran, 1987–88, to be released in August 2008 by Casemate Publishers.There is a fair chance that the United States will take military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program in the near future. If so, it won’t be the first time the U.S. has engaged Iran with military force in the Gulf. In 1987 and 1988, the U.S. fought an undeclared naval war against the Islamic Republic of Iran. That war is little remembered today, even though it involved the largest surface battle fought by the U.S. Navy since the Second World War, a mark which still stands. Perhaps it is now mostly recalled in connection with the Navy warship USS Vincennes’ accidental shoot-down of an Iranian commercial airliner, killing nearly 300 innocent civilians.
The U.S. decided to intervene in the Gulf in 1987 to protect Kuwaiti-owned tankers from Iranian attack. Shipping in the Gulf had come under increasing attack from both Iran and Iraq in what became known as the “Tanker War.” That conflict was an offshoot of the brutal Iran-Iraq War, which had begun in September 1980. The war had settled into a bloody stalemate by 1984, when Iraq extended it into the Gulf with attacks on Iranian tankers. When its shipping came under attack, Iran retaliated against Kuwait, a financial supporter of Iraq, by focusing its attacks on Kuwaiti-bound ships. Under heavy pressure, Kuwait turned to the U.S. with the idea of re-flagging some of its tankers. In January 1987, the U.S. agreed to place Kuwaiti ships under the Stars and Stripes, and dispatched naval forces to the Gulf to protect them.
The U.S. escort plan was code-named “Operation Earnest Will.” To avoid errant attacks by the Iraqis, such as the one that had occurred against the USS Stark in May 1987, the U.S. worked closely with Saddam Hussein’s regime. To facilitate communication between Iraqi jets and U.S. ships, a UHF monitoring frequency was provided to the Iraqis on a monthly basis by the U.S. military attaché in Baghdad. The U.S. also supplied Iraq with the convoy routes in advance. In light of subsequent events, this fairly extensive U.S.-Iraqi cooperation has been kept very low profile.
Iran was outraged by the U.S. decision to intervene. From Iran's point of view, its ship attacks were only tit-for-tat responses to Iraqi strikes against Iranian shipping. Now by shielding Kuwaiti tankers, the U.S. was depriving Iran of a legitimate target for its retaliation. The question was, how would the Iranians react? Reagan administration officials took a sanguine view. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger testified before Congress that Iran "has assiduously avoided even the mere hint of a threat towards U.S. ships," and "we do not expect that situation to change." He would be proved very wrong.
The first Navy-escorted convoy of re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers sailed on July 22, 1987 and ran straight into an Iranian “mine ambush.” The Iranians had laid mines in the convoy’s path at a narrow deep-water choke point in the Gulf. The huge supertanker Bridgeton was damaged but not sunk. It was only sheer luck that the Iranian mines had not claimed one of the escorting U.S. warships, likely with a substantial loss of life. Such an event would have precipitated a major U.S. strike against Iran. As U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral David Crowe later put it, "I thought . . . if this is an indication of what the Iranians are going to do, that, yes, we may be involved in a real sea war here."
The Islamic radicals in control of Iran were loath to see the U.S. move into the Gulf. They respected U.S. power, but sought to confront it in ways that fell short of triggering massive retaliation. The Bridgeton mining was an example, with Iran disclaiming that it had laid the mines. In response to that mining, the U.S. began a build-up of its forces in the Gulf, including the dispatch of U.S. Army Special Forces helicopters. The latter scored a significant victory in October 1987 when they caught and attacked an Iranian mine layer, the Iran Ajar. The ship was captured and then sunk, putting an end to Iranian mine laying attempts for some time.
Still, the Iranians weren’t about to give up. The U.S. convoy escort operation theoretically ended at Kuwaiti waters, where the tankers were handed off to the emirate. Seeing an opening, the Iranians began attacking the ships inside Kuwaiti waters with big land-based Silkworm anti-ship missiles. The U.S.-flagged Sea Isle City was wrecked and its U.S. captain blinded in a missile attack. The U.S. elected to retaliate, with Navy warships destroying an Iranian oil platform being used for military purposes. Blocked again, the Iranians then attacked Kuwaiti oil facilities that had no connection with the U.S. re-flagging effort. The U.S. responded with defensive measures, which limited the effectiveness of the Iranian missile attacks.
In April 1988, the Iranians tried again, mining a U.S. convoy route in the Gulf. This time, the victim was a Navy warship, USS Samuel Robertss. That ship was practically blown in half by an Iranian mine and only the superlative efforts of its crew kept it afloat. The U.S. response was a major strike against Iranian platforms and warships on April 18, named “Operation Praying Mantis.” U.S. ships destroyed two Iranian platforms, but drew an unexpectedly aggressive response. The action escalated with Iranian attacks against UAE platforms and ships. Iranian warships poured into the Gulf and engaged U.S. forces. An Iranian Navy missile boat and a frigate were sunk, with another frigate badly damaged. A U.S. Marine Corps Cobra helicopter gunship was lost, along with its crew, when it crashed dodging Iranian fire. While many in the U.S. were surprised by the ferocious Iranian response to the U.S. strikes, it was actually worse than was publically acknowledged at the time.
The Iranians had bought quantities of Chinese-made Silkworm anti-ship missiles and had used them in attacks against Kuwait. The missiles carried large warheads which might sink big tankers and would certainly devastate smaller warships. The U.S. had sternly warned Iran that it would retaliate if the missiles were used against U.S. warships or tankers under escort. That retaliation would almost certainly have involved large-scale cruise missile and air strikes against the Iranian mainland. Despite the U.S. warnings, on April 18, the Iranians had attacked U.S. warships and secret Special Forces “mobile sea bases” with the Silkworms, which fact the Reagan Administration covered up to avoid events in the Gulf escalating out of control.
In early July 1988, the Aegis cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner in a tragic accident during a battle against Iranian gunboats. That battle appears to have been unjustifiably provoked by the Vincennes, and the official explanation for the shoot down is highly dubious.
By the following month, successful Iraqi ground attacks as well as growing war weariness among the Iranian people caused Iran’s clerical regime to finally accept a cease-fire in its broader conflict with Iraq. The “Tanker War” thus came to an end.
Are there any lessons from the U.S. intervention in the Gulf twenty years ago applicable today? Perhaps. The Iranian government of today is not the same one in power twenty years ago. Still, Iranian resentment against the U.S. presence in what they consider their backyard remains, and helps fuel aid to Iraqi insurgents. If the U.S. strikes directly against Iran’s nuclear facilities, past history does suggest we may trigger a fierce reaction. Iran is today undistracted by a grinding war with Iraq. It has weapons such as submarines and supersonic anti-ship missiles which could cause very serious problems for U.S. forces in the Gulf. Strategic considerations may well cause the U.S. to act. However, we should be under no illusions as to the potential consequences.
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