The Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman, the site of the Tanker War. Photo by Tim Kopra, courtesy of NASA.
If American and Iranian naval forces end up exchanging fire in the Middle East’s vital waterways, it will probably come to be known as the Second Tanker War. The results of the first conflict of that name are instructive.
Hard though it may be to fathom today, the United States and its allies supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq throughout its war with Iran between 1980 and 1988. Iraq was the clear aggressor, but when war broke out, the Tehran regime and its so-called student allies were still holding dozens of American embassy workers hostage. That made Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s government a virtual global pariah. So there was little international objection when Saddam began assaulting Iranian oil shipments midway through the war. Iran retaliated by attacking oil tankers owned and operated by neutral parties, as well as those of the Gulf states that supported Iraq.
In 1987 the United States intervened to maintain freedom of navigation (for everyone except Iran) from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman, through which a large part of the global oil supply passes each day. Under U.S. law, the American navy could not protect ships of other nations. The Reagan administration implemented a workaround: Foreign-owned, foreign-crewed ships could temporarily register as American vessels and fly the Stars and Stripes, in perhaps the only instance this has ever been a flag of convenience. The ships were organized into convoys so that U.S. warships could escort them through the danger zone.
This workaround did not eliminate the danger. Iran used mines, missiles and lightly armed small boats to attack whatever targets they could find. America deployed helicopters and other weapons in response, and inflicted several punishing defeats on the Iranians. This was before the era of unmanned combat drones, but U.S. casualties were still minimal. The Tanker War had more serious impacts on civilian shipping; even so, it did not significantly affect the global oil markets and the budgets of Iraq’s Arab allies. Iranian leaders showed themselves at the time to be tenacious and resourceful. They also proved that they were duplicitous, laying extensive minefields while denying doing so. I see little reason to doubt that they are just as tenacious, resourceful and duplicitous today.
The current tensions in the waters around the Persian Gulf have a lot of parallels to the first Tanker War. Now, as then, the Iranians see themselves responding to an attack on their oil revenues – this time from tough American sanctions – by seeking to deny similar revenues to America’s allies. Publicly, Iran’s leaders have denied that they have responded at all, instead suggesting the U.S. or its allies were behind the recent oil tanker attacks. Iranian denials about the attacks on tankers, at least six of which have been hit by explosions in the past two months, recall the country’s denial of responsibility for mining waterways in the 1980s.
These denials follow threats from only a few months ago. May marked the end of waivers that the U.S. had extended to a handful of jurisdictions to give them time to taper off imports of Iranian crude. Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval Forces commander Alireza Tangsiri told Iranian state TV: “If we are barred from using [the Strait of Hormuz,] we will close it. We will defend our honor and wherever it comes to defend Iran’s rights, we will retaliate.” The U.S. sent additional military resources to the region last month as a precaution.
In another reversion to form, the Iranians sought to take hostages after the two most recent attacks forced civilian sailors to abandon ship. Iranian gunboats forced a rescue ship to hand over 23 crew members from the Norwegian-owned Front Altair. Unfortunately for the Iranians, the crew consisted of one Georgian, 11 Filipinos and 11 Russians. Iran cannot afford to embarrass or otherwise cross Vladimir Putin, whose Kremlin provides key financial and diplomatic support in its ongoing faceoff with America. So the Iranians flew the crew members to the United Arab Emirates after extending them two days’ worth of the Islamic Republic’s brand of hospitality. Had any Americans or other NATO citizens been among that crew, I strongly doubt they would have been so fortunate.
The Iranians also attempted to scoop up mariners from the wounded Japanese vessel, the Kokuka Courageous. A civilian Dutch vessel that responded to the ship’s distress signal reported that an Iranian military vessel demanded permission to board. The civilian vessel’s owner thanked the Iranian ship but declined aid, according to U.S. intelligence reports obtained by CBS News.
A naval confrontation between Iran and the United States is likely to go as badly for Iran in 2019 as it did three decades ago. The Iranians are well aware of this. But they also know they can make the world, if not America, pay a price for complying with the U.S. sanctions that are making life difficult for the regime and its Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is as much a business enterprise as it is a military unit. They can also hope to exploit divisions in the West to try to negate the U.S. military advantage.
Despite considerable photographic and overwhelming circumstantial evidence, as of Monday politicians in Japan, Germany and elsewhere said they remained unpersuaded of Iranian responsibility for the recent shipping attacks. They were joined by some American Democrats and certain media outlets, as well as the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbin. The gist of these objections seemed to be that any statement coming from the Trump administration ought to be disbelieved under any and all circumstances.
President Trump himself has likely encouraged some Iranian adventurism by his long-stated goal of minimizing American military involvement in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, and of making allies carry more of the burden of keeping peace internationally. Given the general fecklessness of many of those allies, the Iranians have reason to test whether Trump is bark without bite.
We can be sure that other capitals, notably Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow, are observing this test with interest. Once reason the Cold War ended in the 1980s was the determination of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to resist aggression forcibly when necessary, as the Iranians – and later the Iraqis – learned. Both Trump and his predecessor have signaled the United States’ weariness with carrying that burden. Those signals have encouraged exactly the behavior we are now seeing from Iran. Our adversaries are perfectly prepared to try to wait us out.
So the eventual response to Iran’s provocations will be very important. Any exercise of force will draw howls of protest from the predictable quarters. But meeting Iran’s mendacity with forthright firmness may be the best way to head off a wider conflict later.