I offer this disclaimer: it must be remembered that 2012 is not 1988 and no matter what historical similarities may exist, there are also differences that make it risky to base ones future moves entirely off of past precedents. All the same, while history may not offer us a panacea, it is still valuable nonetheless.
My apologies if any of the foot-notes are off, I had to transcribe them from "chicago-style" footnotes in a word document which doesn't lend itself to copy-paste.
One of the primary effects of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 was to radically alter the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. The US strategy of using Iran and Saudi Arabia to ensure regional stability and contain the Soviet Union had collapsed; Iran’s military was also left in disarray, a mere shadow of its former self. Iraq meanwhile was now under the leadership of Saddam Hussein who seized power in 1979 and who, in the wake of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords in the late-1970s, began to envision Iraq as the leader of a pan-Arab ‘rejectionist’ bloc who could fill the security void in the Persian Gulf. (1) This came to a head in September of 1980 when, following months of escalating border clashes, the Iraqi army crossed the border en masse and attempted to seize and hold a significant portion of south-western Iran in what James Bill describes as a “political struggle for the hegemony of the Persian Gulf”. (2) Inevitably the war spilled into the Gulf; after spending two years forcing Iraq out of their territory, Iran began a series of offensives aimed at punishing Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Facing defeats in the ground war, Iraq opened the first phase of the Tanker War in 1984 by using the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) to strike at shipping in an effort to deplete Iran of their ability to export the petrochemicals on which it depended. Unable to attack Iraqi oil export capacity (Iraq had switched to using Kuwaiti tankers, or using overland pipelines), Iran resorted to attacking neutral shipping traffic carrying Iraqi oil and other goods. (3) The Tanker War escalated through 1986, drawing more and more international attention. A number of successful Iranian offensives, especially the capture of the strategic Faw peninsula, Iraq’s only border with the northern Persian Gulf, was beginning to create the fear that Iran might be able to topple Baghdad and in doing so, mark the first step in Iran’s regional domination. This was also paired with the revelation in the second half of 1986 that the US had been secretly supplying arms to Iran. (4) This confluence of factors led Washington to accept Kuwait’s call at the end of 1986 for international escorts for their tanker convoys.(5)
The decision to escort Kuwaiti tankers and protect them from Iranian attacks officially marked the US entry into the Tanker War and the start of confrontations between the US Navy (USN) and Iran’s naval forces (INFs). (6) Between 1987 and 1988 the USN and INFs would butt heads on several occasions, eventually concluding with Operation Preying Mantis in the spring of 1988. This paper aims to explore the operational lessons that can be gleaned from studying these engagements and what these lessons can tell us today about the possible behavior of INFs in a contemporary naval war in the Persian Gulf. Its experience has had a catalyzing effect on Iranian strategic planning and has revolutionized the way Iran intends on fighting the US but despite this, the case-study remains woefully underexploited as a pedagogical tool for contingency planning within the US. (7) Specifically, this paper will unpack the conventional wisdom surrounding the efficacy of military force to coerce Iranian policymakers into both drawing down the Tanker War, and contributing to an overall cease-fire with Iraq.
Following Kuwait’s request in late 1986 for international escorts, Iran began a wide range of provocative military posturing in order to avoid this scenario which it rightfully felt would unjustly help Iraq. In February and April INFs began deploying Chinese-built HY-2 anti-ship cruise-missiles (ASCM) and threatened to seize the straits of Hormuz. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) also began a process of highly-visible arms procurement and training in preparation for a conflict with the USN; they also escalated their sea-mining operations. The political leadership also threatened the US and USSR that they would be repulsed if they attempted to interfere in the Persian Gulf, specifically saying that it would become “a second Afghanistan”.(8)
Then, on May 17, an IrAF fighter jet on an anti-shipping operation in the Persian Gulf fired at what it likely believed was an Iranian tanker. The ship in question was in fact a USN frigate called the USS Stark. The damage caused by the two Exocet ASCMs crippled the ship and killed 37 US sailors. In the US, debates erupted about the nature of the US mission in the Gulf and whether or not Reagan had the authority to station military forces in a warzone without getting authorization through the War Powers Act. This led many parties in the region, including Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)(9) , to fear that “…a peripheral strategy of indirect attacks on U.S. ships and forces … might lead the Congress and American people to demand that the U.S. halt its reflagging effort, or even withdraw from the Gulf.”(10) The debate over the Stark also came in the wake of the US withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984 following the car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut where 241 marines were killed, an attack which was most likely perpetrated by Iran’s proxy group in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Iran’s interpretation of these two events was such that Iran believed that the US was ‘self-constrained’ when it came to force and even though the US might theoretically have an extremely power military, it lacked the national will in order to use it and at the same time remained vulnerable to highly symbolic attacks that dealt significant blows (such as the casualties in the wake of the barracks bombing and the Stark). Furthermore, the lack of any punitive measures toward Iraq in retaliation for the attack further emboldened Iran into believing that the convoy escorts that were about to begin were toothless.
The first US escort convoy for Kuwaiti tankers was set to take place in mid/late-July. Only a month earlier in June, Iran had begun sea-mining operations in the northern Gulf near Kuwait. (11) It was in this environment that the US-flagged Bridgeton, part of the very first US-protected convoy, struck and was crippled by a floating sea mine on July 24th. Up until this point, the USN strategy was to rely on the threat of US power alone to deter Iran from attacking the convoys. (12) The failure in this policy was that while the presence of a carrier-battle-group was a powerful show of force that Iran recognized could deal significant damage to their navy; they didn’t believe the US would ever be able to muster together enough support to actually use it, a belief that was verified when Iran escaped all retaliation for the mining.
In the wake of the incident, Iran was further emboldened by the fact that USN was impotent against a threat like naval mines. Guided-missile-frigates were effective in projecting power across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans against waves of hypothetical Soviet aircraft, but carried no counter-measures against WWI-era floating mines that were found in the confines of the Persian Gulf; as an ad-hoc measure, the USN resorted to stationing sailors at the bow of ships with a rifle and a set of binoculars. As a result, the US has proved incapable of carrying out its mission of protecting the tankers and was dealt a sharp blow to their prestige.
The Bridgeton incident also demonstrated to Iran the importance of ambiguity. Because Iran never directly admitted responsibility and there was nothing conclusively tying Iran to the mines in question the international community was never able to pin the blame on Iran and generate momentum for any kind of punitive action. (13) Then-PM Mir Hossein Mousavi credited the attack to “invisible hands” and top military authority Hashemi Rafsanjani threatened further attacks on states that supported Iraq’s war effort. (14) (15) In the following months, the IRGCN was encouraged by Ayatollah Khomeini to escalate its confrontations with the USN. (16) Cordesman asserts that in August 1987, “…every week brought a new Iranian effort to strike at the U.S. by indirect means … that would embarrass the U.S. and potentially force it to withdraw.”(17)
The US’s only response to the incident is to issue Iran one of the first major ‘lines in the sand’ so-to-speak – if the US caught an Iranian mine-laying ship, it would be sunk. (18) This threat does not appear to have had any deterrent effect because INFs followed Khomeini desire to escalate their confrontation with the USN with numerous small boat attacks and a renewed sea-mining campaign in August and September. During this time, Iran relied heavily on plausible deniability to protect them from retaliation from the USN, relying on a fleet of covert mine-laying ships which were difficult to track in the crowded Persian Gulf. However, this strategy failed when USN forces were able to capture the Iran Ajr landing craft being used to lay a minefield north of Qatar on September 21.(19)
The reason this line-in-the-sand didn’t have a deterrent effect on Iran with regard to their decision to continue mine warfare can be traced to the same fundamental reason that Iran felt it could attack the Bridgeton – US threats still didn’t hold any credibility. Mine warfare offered enough anonymity to avoid retaliation, but still offered the possibility of dealing a crippling blow to the USN which would then, presumably, spark a withdrawal. Interestingly though, the Iranian leadership initially took a conciliatory posture when the possibility of a major US attack in response was still possible; then-President Ali Khameini emphasized that Iran had no interest in entering into war with the US.(20)
On one hand, while the Iran Ajr incident did result in an increase in domestic support for Reagan and for the idea of a military reprisal against Iran, and helped isolate Iran diplomatically, the continued lack of any actual punitive retaliation quickly swept fears of a war with the US from the INF’s minds. (21) Consequently, by October the Tanker War was back to its regular tempo with small boat attacks and clashes with the USN. This culminated on October 15/16 when Iran fired a handful of HY-2 ASCMs toward Kuwait, striking both a neutral tanker, and the US-flagged Sea-City Isle.(22)
This time, the US decided that they would strike back. Launched on October 19, Operation Nimble Archer was conceived of as limited, proportional response designed not to escalate the existing level of tensions so as to not endanger a comprehensive cease-fire being negotiated at the same time; a handful of USN surface vessels destroyed two abandoned oil platforms off the southern coast of Iran.(23)
In response to this show of force Iran temporarily halted all anti-shipping operations until November when Iraq resumed attacks on Iranian targets in the Gulf. At this point, even though Iran resumed tanker-hunting in the Gulf, they were careful to only attack neutral targets and steered clear of any direct attacks on the USN. (24) This indicates that Iran responded at least somewhat positively to Operation Nimble Archer by choosing not to continue the harassing attacks against the USN. Despite this, the incident also confirms a second trend in INF behavior which is that while Iran does respond positively, within the framework established, they will continue to do it’s best to subvert the aims of USN forces. What I mean by this is that in the wake of Nimble Archer Iran might have retreated to the limits set – Iran stopped attacking US-flagged tankers, but within this rule Iran stretched the limits as far as possible by escalating the mining war, and in attacks against neutral-flagged tankers. This was again illustrated at the end of 1987 when it appears that the US covertly threatened Iran over the conditions in the Gulf. While it is impossible to know the exact nature of the threat, it appears to have been in regards to Iran’s continued attacks against maritime traffic. (25) Combined with an aggressive naval strategy of shadowing Iranian warships by the USN, Iran relented and in February through early-March, the Persian Gulf was relatively calm.(26)
In March and April of 1988, the Iranian leadership was under extreme pressure following setbacks in the ground war to produce a final victory so as to end the war. (27) (28) During this time, there is a divisive internal debate going on in Tehran surrounding the strategy in the Gulf, some believed that only had to be dealt a further blow, while some others felt that a military confrontation would only end in disaster. (29) Ultimately though, the IRGCN restarted their sea-mining campaign in the Gulf which culminated on April 14 when the US warship USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a floating mine in the southern Persian Gulf which crippled the vessel. While this attack would justify a more significant response then Nimble Archer, the retaliation for the deliberate mining of a US warship was still a limited, proportional response; On April 19 the USN destroyed two oil platforms, sunk an IRIN frigate, missile-boat, and severely crippled another frigate. (30) The USN also declared that it would now act to protect all neutral shipping passing through the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s response to this incident was mixed. Those who favored a confrontational posture suffered significant fallout in Tehran as the US, instead of backing down, struck back at Iran. (31) Likewise, many in Iran’s conventional armed forces were stunned, for the rest of the war the IRIN and IRIAF were ordered not to engage the USN. (32) Combined with the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf by the US cruiser USS Vincennes on July 3, Preying Mantis had the effect of indicating to Tehran that the US would never tolerate an Iranian victory and now had no compunctions about intervening directly on Iraq’s behalf. The fact that the US response took place on the same day that Iraq recaptured the strategic Faw peninsula drove this point home. Rafsanjani declared that “Time is not on our side anymore, the world – I mean the anti-Islamic powers – has decided to make a serious effort to save Saddam Hussein and tie our hands.”(33)
The most interesting reaction came from the IRGCN however, despite the fact that Khomeini was under intense pressure to end the war the IRGCN was further incensed in the wake of Preying Mantis, and, against the better urging of various factions in Tehran, continued to harass the US after a limited operational pause in May. (34) By June, small-boat attacks and mine-laying had resumed, and HY-2 ASCM facilities were expanded around the straits of Hormuz. (35) This is easily one the more important lessons of the US’s interaction with the INFs during 1987-1988; one cant talk about how “Iran” responds to coercive violent force like Preying Mantis because there isn’t a singular ‘Iran’ to respond to it in the first place. What the US perceived when it saw Khomeini spitefully accept the ‘chalice of poison’ when he signed the ceasefire with Iraq was that “This sequence of events...has clearly indicated that Iranians, despite all their rhetoric, religious zeal and determination, at the end of the day are also quite susceptible to the implications [and effects] posed by an overwhelming and decisive military force”.(36) In reality however, the decision to accept a cease-fire was far more complicated and owed the final outcome more to factional competition then the decisive impact of US operations. For instance, without the pressure from other factions, it is more then likely that the IRGCN would have escalated its attacks on US ships, leading to further confrontation in the Fall of 1988. In other words, it might have been necessary for the US to demonstrate that they would never let Iran win the Tanker War in order for a comprehensive ceasefire, but it alone would not have been sufficient to force Iran to cease hostilities.
The reason the Tanker War serves as such a good teaching tool today is because this is exactly the way Iran has approached it, Tom Cooper asserts that:
“Preying Mantis should be seen as a 'university' of the modern Iranian naval power. Not only that the Iranian leaders learned a lot about the behaviour of the US politicians and military commanders from that operation, but their naval forces learned about all of their inherent weaknesses, about the equipment of their enemy and his/her technological superiority, and prompted them to search for ways of evading these, or exploiting their weak spots. Preying Mantis prompted them to tackle all of these through successive reforms and modernizations ever since. The modern-day Iranian naval forces are actually neatly tailored to the (Iranian) lessons of Preying Mantis.” (37)Today the possibility of naval warfare between the US and Iran is again a prescient threat. In the same way that the Iran-Iraq war sprung from a contest between Iran and Iraq over the hegemony of the Persian Gulf, Iran and the US are now locked in a geostrategic struggle for control over the influence of the same region. (38) So what can the Tanker War tell us about the contemporary behavior of INFs?
The fundamental and most important lesson is that Iran can in fact be successfully deterred and coerced through the threat and use of military force. The ability to successfully extract concessions however is dependent on the credibility of a ‘greater force’ which can be brought to bear should Iran fail to be deterred by a limited reprisal.
Historically Iran has proven to be extremely vulnerable to threats against its ability to export petrochemicals; while Iran did maintain an overall policy of confrontation with the USN over the span of the Tanker War, political leaders were careful into never provoking the US into attacking this lifeline. (39) In fact, this specific threat proved its efficacy as Iran, after been informed by the US that any use of HY-2 ASCMs in the straits of Hormuz would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the United States, never used them except in the Northern Gulf. (40) Throughout the Tanker War Iran relied on these exports to maintain their war against Iraq and prevent the complete erosion of public support for the war. It should be noted that Iraqi anti-shipping efforts never seriously endangered the ability of Iran to export the majority of its oil. (41) Moreover, the Iranian economy is still highly dependent on petrochemicals and is the single largest source of government revenue.(42)
However, it should be noted that today Iran still feels the US has little credibility in the Persian Gulf, in part because Iran is so confident in its strategy developed in the wake of their defeat in the Tanker War. (43) Meanwhile, strategists in Tehran have carefully observed the US experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq and have come to the conclusion that, in the words of the current military advisor to the Supreme Leader, Major General Safavi “The Americans have many weaknesses. In fact, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they clearly displayed their strengths and weaknesses. … They are very cowardly, there are even scenes from Iraq in which they are seen crying. When their commanders encounter a problem, they burst into tears. … I can therefore say that our advantage over the foreign forces is moral and human.” (44) This is, in essence, a repackaging of the same ideology that perceived the US withdrawal from Lebanon as signaling the US position as a ‘paper tiger’ that couldn’t stomach a fight.
The fact that the U.S. lacks this credibility is one of the reasons we can expect INFs to continue their policy of brinksmanship in the Gulf, aimed at exposing the US’s supposed inability to exert its will. Like their operations in the Tanker War, INFs will push the limits of US ‘lines-in-the-sand’ in an attempt to discredit the US effort. This can be observed even today in the numerous confrontations that have happened in the past decade in encounters between the USN and the IRGCN. (45) Defeating this brinksmanship can only be achieved by immediately and decisively responding in order to establish credibility. In other words, Iran cannot be allowed to test and exceed the limits set by the USN.
In carrying out a reprisal aimed at establishing credibility, the US would be aided by a significant transformation in the way US forces have operated in the region since the 1980s. During the Tanker War, the US was restricted to basing their forces from aircraft carriers and floating barges because of the reluctance of Arab states to visibly cooperate with the United States. (46) Today these same states are less far less reluctant to balance growing Iranian influence by shoring up their relationship with the US; after being asked about the loss of US influence in the Gulf, Secretary of Defense Panetta quipped that “…in Bahrain … we've got almost 5,000 troops … We've got about ... 3,000 in the UAE and about 7,500 in Qatar.” (47) Gulf Arab States would be far more likely to contribute to any Gulf peace-keeping operation and just as importantly, aid the US logically by providing basing for US airpower.
But this advantage would do little to outweigh many of the new challenges that have sprung up in the 20+ interceding years. Most notably, Iran’s naval forces are far more capable today; instead of only being equipped with small-boats armed with machine-guns and light rocket launchers, the IRGCN now operates a large fleet of advanced torpedo and missile-boats, a modest fleet of light submarines, and a large number of shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM). Sea-mining capability has also become more credible since 1988.(48)
The lack of a parallel conflict like the Iran-Iraq war to drain the economy and consume resources means that the Iranian populace will be much more likely to oppose political concessions to de-escalate the naval conflict in the same way that Preying Mantis, in conjunction with Iraqi ground offensives, pressured pragmatic factions to push-through a cease-fire agreement in opposition to the hardliners. Furthermore, the fact that IRGC-led factions are currently politically dominant in Tehran means that those individuals and factions most likely to be successfully deterred by the threat of force from the US are the same ones that will likely be sidelined in a confrontation between the two countries.(49)
Another challenge the US would face is the inherent unpredictability of warfare and the risk of miscalculation. For instance, it is extremely likely that Iran could misinterpret any wide scale punitive measures as attempts as ‘regime change’, the perpetual boogey-man in the night for Iranian strategists. (50) (51) If this happens, it is extremely unlikely that Iran would react rationally to a limited war, and would instead act to preserve the very survival of the Islamic Republic. This possibility casts into light the value of the proposed hot-line between US and Iranian forces that would mirror the red-telephone of the Cold War that connected Washington to Moscow in order to prevent accidental nuclear war. Iran rejected this possibility in late September. (52) The end-state of these diverse factors is that if the US hopes to coerce Iran into backing down from any future naval conflict, the US government must be prepared to invest significantly more in terms of effort invested, and in acceptance of any possible loss.
1) ‘Rejectionist’ meaning anti-Israel, anti-US, and anti-Imperialist; Farhang Rejaee, "Introduction," The Iran-Iraq War: The Politics of Aggression, ed. Farhang Rajaee (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1993), 2-3.
2) Keith McLachlan, "Analysis of the Risks of War: Iran-Iraq Discord 1979-1980," The Iran-Iraq War: The Politics of Aggression, ed. Farhang Rajaee (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 1993), 26-27.
3) Tom Cooper, and Farzad Bishop, Iran-Iraq War in the Air: 1980-1988, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2000), 161.
4) Cooper and Bishop, 229. The US grew closer to Baghdad in the wake of Iran-Contra because Washington felt it had to mend its relationship with the Arab states, who felt betrayed that the US would provide arms to Iran.
5) David Christ, "Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea," Policy Focus, no. 95 (2009): 2,
6) Iran’s forces include the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Navy (IRGCN) and Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). ‘INF’ is a provisional designation not used outside of this report.
7) Tom Cooper. Operation Preying Mantis. Air Combat Information Group Forum. October 27 2011.
8) Anthony Cordesman, The Lessons Of Modern War, Vol. 2: The Iran-Iraq War , (Westview Press, 1990), chap. 9.
9) The GCC includes the nations of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, The UAE, and Oman.
10) Cordesman, chap.9
11) Cordesman, chap.9
12) Christ, 4
13) Cordesman, chap.9
14) Cordesman, chap.9
15) Interestingly, both of these figures (Mousavi and Rafsanjani) are key figures in the modern-day reform movement within Iran
16) Fariborz Haghshenass, "Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare," Policy Focus (2008): 5
17) Cordesman, chap.9
18) Cordesman, chap.9
19) Christ, 13
20) Cordesman, chap.9
21) The US’s only response was to sink the Iran Ajr landing craft which was envisioned by some to be retaliation, but lacked any actual punitive measures against other targets, i.e. it didn’t actually raise the cost for mining operations.
22) Tom Cooper, and Farzad Bishop, 253.
23) Cordesman, chap.9
24) Cordesman, chap.9
25) Cordesman, chap.9
26) Christ, 7
27) Anthony Cordesman, The Lessons Of Modern War, Vol. 2: The Iran-Iraq War, (Westview Press, 1990), chap.10, p.29.
28) These setbacks include the failed Iranian Valfajr-10 offensive in which Iraq made heavy use of chemical weapons and the use of SCUD-type missiles during the War of the Cities to strike population centers.
29) Christ, 13
30) Cordesman, chap.10, 25-28
31) Christ, 13
32) Cooper and Bishop. 276
33) Cordesman, chap.10, 30
34) Cooper, ACIG Forums
35) Cordesman, chap.10, 34-40
36) Jahangar Arasli, "Obsolete Weapons, Unconventional Tactics, and Martyrdom Zeal: How Iran Would Apply its Asymmetric Naval Warfare Doctrine in a Future Conflict," Occasional Paper Series, no. 10 (2007): 20
37) Tom Cooper, ACIG Forums
38) This can be observed in a number of official statements from naval commanders and other officials. See ‘Fars News English’ in the works cited section for a few examples.
39) Cordesman, chap.9
40) Christ, 10
41) Cordesman, chap.9
42) The implication here is that if because the USN and USAF today can operate a far more effective campaign to destroy infrastructure compared to the IrAF in the 1980s, as demonstrated during Iraq 1991/2003 and Libya 2011, the ability to actually affect Tehran’s policy by way of oil revenue would be far greater.
43) See Tom Cooper quote above
44) Arasli, 44
45) Shachtman 01/08/2008
46) Cordesman, chap.9
47) Dreyfuss, 10/14/11
48) For the full details of Iran’s naval modernizations and their larger doctrine aimed at asymmetrically defeating USN forces, see Haghshenass’s “Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare” and Arasli’s “Obsolete Weapons”
49) Thaler et al, 2009
50) --- (foot-note related to another paper I had written for this project which is otherwise unavailable)
51) Fars News, December 2010
52) Gladstone, 2011
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