A year ago, President Trump scrapped the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Since then, he has effectively declared economic war on Iran, imposing new and crippling sanctions as part of a strategy of “maximum pressure” to force regime change and end Iran’s support for terrorism.
Iran has responded with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point through which about 20 percent of the world’s traded petroleum travels. Since May, six oil tankers have been attacked near the Strait, and last Friday Iran seized a British-owned tanker.
U.S. aircraft and troops are being rushed to the region. After Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone near the Strait, Trump was, by his own account, a few minutes away from launching attacks against Iranian targets, before canceling the strikes. Last week, the Navy shot down an Iranian drone that came too close to a Navy warship.
The United States has launched aggressive cyberattacks against Iranian intelligence targets. Officials in Washington now describe a “shadow war” with Iran. The United States is organizing a coalition of nations to protect shipping in the Gulf.
These headlines have a familiar ring. In 1985, two days after my last final exam at the University of Utah, I was off to naval officer candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island. Eighteen months later, I was in the Persian Gulf, part of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Earnest Will, also called The Tanker War.
As the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) stretched into its seventh year, both sides had resorted to anti-shipping campaigns in the Persian Gulf. The United States intervened militarily in 1987 to guarantee freedom of navigation. The U.S. strategy called for limited naval force short of war, known as gunboat diplomacy. At peak involvement, we had more than 30 ships in the region.
This was at a time when the United States was much more dependent on Middle East sources of oil than it is today. Much of that oil was carried by tankers that passed through the Strait of Hormuz, a 24 miles wide waterway linking the Persian Gulf to the world’s oceans. The Strait abuts Iran and Oman, with shipping lanes only two miles wide in either direction, and is considered “the world’s most important oil transit choke point." The Strait has long been Iran’s ace in the hole in Gulf politics.
By the end of 1988, the Navy had escorted 127 convoys — the most since World War II — of tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. The oil continued to flow, despite Iran and Iraq’s combined 448 strikes on Persian Gulf shipping during the Tanker War. But in the doing the United States became a de facto belligerent in the Iran-Iraq war. Military escalation and mission creep led to a shadow war between the United States and Iran.
How we went from limited intervention to a shooting war with Iran is a cautionary tale.
Operation Earnest Will began by re-flagging Kuwaiti tankers. The assumption — which proved correct — was that Iran wouldn’t directly attack U.S.-flagged and escorted ships. So far so good. But the protective umbrella of the U.S. Navy steadily increased in reaction to indiscriminate Iranian attacks and naval mining, and by mid-1988 included neutral ships in the Persian Gulf. We were now protecting all but Iranian shipping.
Clashes with Iran intensified, and an escalatory dynamic took hold.
In just one eye-for-an-eye cycle, an American frigate hit an Iranian naval mine and was nearly cut in half. The U.S. Navy responded by destroying Iranian oil platforms and six surface vessels, including two frigates that were sent to the bottom of the Gulf, along with their 135-man crews. This one-day battle was the Navy’s largest surface action since the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.
My ship was more lucky than the American frigate. I was on bridge watch in the Persian Gulf when a lookout saw something floating in the water dead ahead of us. After eyeing it with my binoculars, I had the helmsman make his rudder left full, and we managed to avoid what turned out to be an Iranian floating mine. It passed down the length of the starboard (right) side of our ship with only 15 feet to spare.
The fighting ended in tragedy, however, when, on July 3, 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 near the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 civilians on board. Two weeks later, Iran used the downing as a pretext to end the Iran-Iraq war, otherwise the fighting probably would have continued to intensify.
Thirty years later, the United States and Iran are again playing a dangerous game of military escalation in the Persian Gulf. Iran is once more disrupting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, and the United States is once more confronting Iran to guarantee freedom of navigation. Another shadow war is taking shape. What’s new is the specter of Iran’s nuclear program.
The Tanker War, the only time United States and Iranian forces have battled openly and directly in the Persian Gulf, suggests the current tensions could easily spin out of control.
Shooting down an American military drone and seizing a British tanker were provocations designed to signal that Iran can escalate. “We always respond,” the Iranian foreign minister said last week.
The United States should stay calm and measured in its use of military force to influence Iran’s behavior, avoiding the Tanker War’s run-away escalations.
But if in the meantime Iran’s economy craters due to sanctions, and the mullahs in Tehran decide development of an atomic bomb is needed to protect their regime, then all bets are off.
David Burns lives in Salt Lake City. He twice deployed to the Middle East aboard the USS Raleigh, 1987-88.