A ‘tanker war’ with Iran would be more complicated than the 1980s version

A file photo from Dec. 6, 1987, at the height of the “tanker war” in the Persian Gulf, shows the Singapore-flagged Norman Atlantic ablaze after it was attacked by an Iranian warship in Omani territorial waters as it approached the Strait of Hormuz.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The president was named Reagan, and Iran and Iraq were locked in a horrific war with each other over control of land and the Persian Gulf.

The United States and other nations entered the fringes of the conflict when the warring neighbors launched attacks on international oil tankers transiting the strategic waterway — at that time, the route for most crude to the rest of the world.

The U.S. Navy was among several forces that began to escort the vessels, clear mines floating in the sea and patrol the shores in search of missile batteries, launching what became known as the “tanker war” of the 1980s. More than 200 boats were attacked and dozens of sailors killed, including 37 Americans.


Today, as the Trump administration and Iran trade accusations and insults, tensions have soared once again in the volatile region, with the U.S. blaming several tanker explosions on Iran and stoking fears of a broader conflict and a new, more dangerous tanker war.

Thus far, however, the two sides seem to be delicately calibrating their escalations.

As his top diplomat made a rare visit Tuesday to the military command that oversees operations in the Persian Gulf, President Trump was quoted dismissing Iran’s actions as “very minor.”

In an interview with Time magazine, Trump declined to commit to using American firepower to protect shipping lanes.

Trump’s remarks came a day after Iran said it was returning to the enrichment of uranium, a potential component of nuclear weapons, to exceed limits set in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Most of the attacks in the Persian Gulf so far have been limited in destruction and claimed no lives. Whether directed by Tehran or not, they seem designed to send a message and raise alarm, but avoid escalation.

Messages from the Trump administration in response have been mixed.


Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo traveled to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday to very publicly confer with the generals at Central Command who would lead any military action in the gulf.

It is unusual for a secretary of State to make such a consultation without a senior Defense official present. (About an hour after Pompeo’s appearance, the acting secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, abruptly dropped out of consideration for the permanent job.)

“A whole broad range of issues” was discussed, Pompeo told reporters in Tampa after the meeting. The aim of the visit was “to continue to work to convince [Iran] that we are serious and to deter them from further aggression in the region,” he said, striking a notably different tone from Trump’s comment.

A day earlier, the Pentagon announced it was sending 1,000 additional troops to the region.

A new tanker war would be more complicated than the 1980s version, in part because of Iran’s tactics and the difficulty the U.S. would have in forging an international coalition for any sort of aggressive response, military experts and officials said.

“The circumstances are very different,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday. “I think there is a military role in defending freedom of navigation. The question will be to what extent the international community will get behind that role.”


So far, few in the international community, with the exception of several gulf states that are archenemies of Iran, have offered to join the U.S.

The leading Western European countries and Russia and China, who each co-signed the nuclear deal with the U.S. and Iran in 2015 and believe Trump made a huge mistake when he withdrew from it a year ago, are reluctant to ally themselves with the administration.

“I think that Europe’s role really should be that of trying to attempt to sort of reverse this vicious cycle,” Nathalie Tocci, advisor to Federica Mogherini, foreign minister of the European Union, told a BBC morning program Tuesday.

Mogherini was en route to Washington to meet with Pompeo. Tocci said European governments were awaiting sufficient evidence from the U.S. Navy that Iran was responsible for six attacks in a month’s time.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, said Tuesday that she thought there was “strong evidence” of Iran’s culpability, but called on both sides to deescalate tensions.

In the last tanker war, Iran placed Russian-made sea mines in the path of targeted ships, and Iraq fired Exocet missiles at them from its French-made aircraft.


The U.S. role intensified after the Navy frigate Stark was hit by an Iraqi missile on May 17, 1987, claiming the lives of 37 American sailors. Joined by a broad coalition of international navies, U.S. ships escorted tankers through the gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz.

Kuwait, whose ships were especially targeted, reflagged its fleet with U.S. flags, necessary so that the U.S. Navy could legally guide the vessels. Kuwait went the extra mile of giving its ships American names, all taken from cities in New Jersey.

Iran today is benefiting from its experience in that long-ago conflict, experts said. It has perfected the use of fast boats for strikes on and harassment of bigger vessels.

Most important, instead of sea mines, which are clumsy to position and inaccurate in targeting, Iran now appears to be using limpet mines, which are affixed to the hulls of ships. They are supremely accurate and easier to transport. Limpet mines also don’t usually do catastrophic damage, allowing Tehran to send a warning without all-out destruction or death.

If Iran was responsible for the most recent attacks, on June 13, as the Trump administration claims, the explosions would be significant because they would mark the first attack outside the Persian Gulf. They took place in the Gulf of Oman, gateway to the Arabian Sea and, beyond that, the Indian Ocean.

“That was a big statement,” said Lawrence Brennan, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in maritime law and served as a Navy captain in the Persian Gulf. The question, he said, “is how far they [the Iranians] will go, how deep they want to go.”


If Iran has different munitions this time around, the U.S. Navy has its own concerns.

The American fleet no longer has the number of large frigates that worked the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, often serving as ad hoc minesweepers thanks to their girth and reinforced hulls, Brennan said.

Even as the Pentagon announced deployment of the additional 1,000 troops, a senior U.S. Defense official said the military has not been asked to prepare plans for escorting vessels through the disputed waters.

“That would take a lot of ships,” said another Defense official. “A lot of traffic goes through on a regular basis. We’re not in a position now to be able to do that.”

Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this report.

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