The Guns of '88: Lessons of the Forgotten Tanker War

Iran once again directly challenges the United States today as a nuclear power in the making, and panic attacks are breaking out in the expected quarters. Hardly a day goes by without another round of bloodcurdling threats from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or other representatives of the Islamic Republic — followed in short order by panicky cries to 'do something' from members of the Western commentariat.

There's no point in naming any names — most of theses people will very likely think better of their reaction in days to come, and in any case the subject has been well—covered on this site by James Lewis. There's little to add to his conclusion that the Iranians have hit an open nerve and that this is far from a good thing.

How seriously should we take Iranian threats? In cases like this it's usually wise to put aside the rhetoric and go to the record. The only sensible method of judging a nation's intentions and capabilities is to pop in the earplugs and take a close look at how they acted in the past.

The Largest naval engagement since World War II

Conveniently enough, we have an incident on hand in which Iran attempted a direct challenge to American power. It occurred in the late 1980s as a byproduct of the Iran—Iraq War. Nobody should feel foolish if this fails to ring a bell. For reasons that must have appeared excellent at the time, matters were conducted at very low key. But in fact it went on for a considerable period, involved the largest naval engagement since World War II, and stands as one of the most decisive such campaigns on record.

The Tanker War was an attempt to break the stalemate of the Iran—Iraq War. With neither side powerful enough nor competent enough to prevail on the battlefield, the war settled into a ghastly replay of World War I, a mud—soaked stasis broken by bloody confrontations over minuscule patches of ground.

As in World War I, the sole hope of gaining advantage lay in operations outside the main theater, in this case the Persian Gulf. Iraq moved first in March 1984, with a limited blockade of the northern gulf enforced by French Dassault jets armed with French Exocet missiles. The purpose was to end the war by squeezing Iran economically through its oil exports. That meant that neutral third—party tankers were the major targets. In less than a year, the Iraqis attacked over seventy ships.

The attacks succeeded in cutting Iran's oil exports in half while reducing Gulf shipping by a quarter. The Iranians soon retaliated, insurance rates began to skyrocket, and a number of shipping companies canceled further Gulf operations.

A moratorium was negotiated in 1985, which Iraq effectively ignored, hitting ships throughout 1986 and into1987. When it began targeting ships of neighboring oil states, they called for international assistance.

Curiously, the USSR was the first nation to respond, with a flotilla of chartered tankers. The U.S. was close behind, acting with some urgency after the destroyer Stark was nearly sunk by an Iraqi Exocet on May 17, 1987.

The U.S. Navy's solution to the attacks was to revive the old convoy system, which required re—flagging foreign tankers. (Due to an arcane law forbidding U.S. warships from convoying foreign vessels.) Iraq, perhaps sobered by the Stark incident, remained aloof after the convoys commenced in late July as Operation Earnest Will.

Confronting Iran

Interference from Iran continued, in the form of random minefields, speedboat attacks, and missile firings.

The U.S. responded with a secret subsidiary operation code—named Prime Chance. Heavily—armed U.S. Army light helicopters (MH—6s and OH—6s, so—called 'Killer Eggs') began flying night missions from Navy ships and modified barges. On September 21, Army crews detected a converted coaster, the Iran Ajr, busily laying a minefield. The gunships quickly crippled the Ajr with rockets and miniguns. Navy SEALS then boarded the vessel. After collecting intelligence material and rescuing Iranian crewman who jumped overboard during the attack, the SEALS scuttled the Ajr.

A few weeks later the Navy moved to curtail further attacks by destroying the oil platforms directing them. On October 19, after warning the crews to debark, the guided missile destroyers Young, Hoel, Kidd, and Leftwich opened fire on the Result and Reshadat platforms. In less than an hour and a half the ships put 1000 5—inch rounds into the platforms, effectively demolishing both. The operation halted offshore Iranian oil production for the duration, and more importantly, sharply reduced attacks on the convoys for several months.

Then on April 14, 1988, the crew of the Samuel B. Roberts discovered that the frigate had sailed into an uncharted minefield. While attempting to back out, the Roberts struck a mine and, heavily damaged, limped to port for repairs. Examination of a recovered mine revealed a serial number from the same batch as those found aboard the Iran Ajr.

Operation Praying Mantis

This time, plans were a little more elaborate. Navy chief of staff Admiral William Crowe had conceived an interest in a particular Iranian frigate —— the most sinister of Iran's warships, the Sabalan, involved in many brutal attacks against civilian vessels. Operations carried out near its homeport of Bandar Abbas might, Crowe hoped, tempt it out to be dealt with by Navy units.

Operation Praying Mantis began on April 18 with two surface action groups striking oil platforms off Sirri while a third lay in wait for Iranian ships. The platforms were first shelled before being stormed by Marines and SEAL teams who took the crews captive and set demo charges.

Iran retaliates

The Iranians responded with the missile boat Joshan. In a suicidal gesture, the Joshan fired a missile at the third group's lead ship, the guided missile cruiser Wainwright. The cruiser easily diverted the missile with a burst of chaff. The destroyer Simpson returned fire, followed by the Wainwright and the Bagley. Within seconds, the Joshan was a blazing wreck. The remnants were sunk with gunfire.

The next Iranian move came in the form of a half—dozen speedboats, headed not for the warships, but civilian shipping across the Gulf. They were intercepted by A—6E Intruders flying off the USS Enterprise. Cluster bombs sank one speedboat and damaged the others, forcing them to beach themselves on the Iranian shoreline.

Shortly afterward, the frigate Sahand, the Sabalan's sister ship, crossed the Gulf intending to strike at oil platforms belonging to the United Arab Emirates. An A—6E intercepted the ship, dodged several SAMs, and struck the Sahand with two Harpoon missiles and several laser—guided bombs. Another Harpoon fired by the destroyer Joseph Strauss completed the Sahand's destruction.

At last, nearing 5 o'clock, hours after combat had commenced, the Sabalan sailed from Bandar Abbas harbor. The ship opened fire on a passing formation of A—6Es, who eluded the SAMs and turned to attack. A 500—pound bomb followed its guidance laser straight down the frigate's smokestack, leaving it dead in the water.

'Enough blood today'

At that moment, Admiral Crowe, who had been following the action closely, intervened to call off further attacks. 'We've shed enough blood today.'

While in no sense comparable to Midway or Leyte Gulf, Praying Mantis did substantial damage to the Iranian Navy, sinking two small vessels, damaging several others, and sinking or crippling two major warships.

It was also decisive: no state has since attempted to challenge U.S. naval supremacy in the Persian Gulf. It may further have aided in ending the Iran—Iraq War, one of the most savage, bloody, and senseless of the late 20th century. That same day, April 18, the Iraqis succeeded in throwing Iranian troops off the Faw Peninsula. It was a very bad afternoon for the ayatollahs. They entered negotiations a short while later.

History and the Iranians

That's the history the Iranians have to live with. That's what comes to mind when they consider the United States. And that's the context in which we must judge current Iranian actions.

Today, the government which created that record of defeat and disgrace finds itself surrounded on all sides, not in control of the waters off its own coast, loathed by its own people, and facing the most powerful and experienced military in the Middle East.

No wonder they're shaking nukes they don't have. 

The ayatollahs' behavior is not a product of confidence. There's no way it could be. The Iranians are in worse shape today than in 1988. Their navy has suffered extreme neglect. Its major vessels are twenty—five to fifty years old, its personnel untrained and inexperienced. The army, with 'armored' and 'mechanized' divisions with more men than vehicles,  is scarcely worth mentioning. So the leadership responds out of fear: shouting to overcome their own misgivings, claiming weapons they have no way of developing, and making premature announcements of 'joining the nuclear club.'

All that can be said for this line of behavior is that has succeeded in shaking up a very jittery Western media elite. But that can't last. The thing about repeated threats is that they tend to grow more comic as they go. The Iranians crossed that line with their Pythonesque 'uranium dancers.' It will require a lot of shouting to overcome that image. Ahmadinejad is simply not ferocious enough a figure to do it. You can't continually scream about 'cutting people's hands off' without eventually cutting off some hands. And if he wants to try that....

Then the 5th Fleet will be waiting. Along with the rest of the U.S. forces stationed in and around the Gulf. The events of 1988 can stand as a promise — that the U.S. will make its move in its own time, at its own convenience, and for its own purposes. And all the shouting in the world is not going to change that.

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.