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U.S.-Iranian Military Clashes in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s - The Inside Story

July 13th 2009

Energy Topics - Burning Oil Platform

In the 1980s, the United States faced significant security challenges in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic Revolution in Iran had replaced Washington’s ally, the Shah, with a decidedly hostile regime in Tehran. In September 1980, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein seized upon the chaos in Iran by sending Iraqi forces to capture the oil resources located across the border in southern Iran.

However, Iran fended off the assault and drove Saddam’s forces back into Iraq, where the fighting bogged down. Despite repeated offensives costing hundreds of thousands of lives, the Iranians were unable to defeat Iraq, and the war stalemated into a bloody struggle, eerily reminiscent of the First World War.

Fearing an Iranian victory and the export of its Shiite  revolution to Iraq, the pro-Western Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—provided Iraq with US$25–$65 billion in assistance. Kuwait allowed weapons destined for Iraq to transit its ports; in one week alone, ships arrived at Kuwaiti harbors delivering nearly a brigade’s worth of T-72 tanks. In 1984, the Iran-Iraq War spilled into the Persian Gulf: In an attempt to force Iran to accept a ceasefire, Iraq initiated the so called Tanker War by attacking Iranian oil tankers.  Iran responded by attacking ships destined for Iraq’s financial supporters, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

On May 13, 1984, an Iranian F-4E fighter bomber attacked the 80,000-ton Kuwaiti tanker Umm Casbah as it steamed off the Saudi coast carrying a load of petroleum for the United Kingdom. These attacks marked a major escalation in the war:  For the first time ever, Iran had deliberately targeted neutral shipping. By the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian forces had attacked 190 ships from 31 nations, killing at least 63 sailors.

The United States responded to the Iranian military threat by strengthening the military capabilities of the GCC nations, which established their own rapid deployment force called the Peninsula Shield Force, headquartered in Saudi Arabia. Washington tried to augment the new force with a Gulf-wide integrated air defense system. Early warning radars around the Gulf were linked with Hawk surface-to-air missiles in Kuwait and the UAE, and with Saudi Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and F-15 fighters. “The idea then and now,” Richard Armitage, then assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, said later, “was to create a GCC with some teeth in it.” But old antagonisms frustrated these efforts. The Gulf Arab states remained divided over long-standing disputes and were justifiably nervous about publicly cooperating with the United States against their powerful Iranian neighbor.

The U.S. air defense system did have one notable success. In response to Iranian air attacks, the Saudis established an air defense zone (known as the “Fahd Line”) over their offshore oil facilities in the northern Gulf. On June 5, 1984, a U.S. AWACS stationed in Saudi Arabia detected an Iranian F-4 fighter crossing the Fahd Line. Two Saudi F-15s intercepted and shot down the Iranian aircraft with a Sidewinder missile. Both sides scrambled nearly a dozen additional aircraft, and it looked as though a major dogfight was about to ensue over the Gulf. However, Iran recalled its aircraft, avoiding a major confrontation. This display of Saudi fortitude effectively eliminated the Iranian air threat in the north, as Iran never again used its fixed-wing aircraft to attack shipping near Saudi Arabia.

Reflagging Kuwaiti tankers

In 1986, the growing conflict in the Persian Gulf forced Washington to intervene more directly. On January 12, 1986, Iranians stopped and briefly boarded the American President Lines ship President Taylor searching for military supplies headed for Iraq.5 With the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro only three months earlier, in which an elderly American citizen was shot and killed, the Reagan administration was in no mood to risk another crisis with a country that had a track record of taking American hostages.6 In November, news broke of secret U.S. arms sales to Iran. This disclosure effectively ended a reconciliation effort by the administration with Iran through what current secretary of defense Robert Gates recently called “the search for the elusive Iranian moderate.”

Meanwhile, the Iran-Iraq War reached new levels of violence. In February 1986, Iran amassed more than 100,000 men, crossed the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and captured the strategic al-Faw Peninsula. In response, Iraq escalated its attacks on Iranian shipping, and Iran retaliated in kind by attacking tankers headed to the Gulf states, including one tanker waiting to take on a cargo of crude oil in Dubai. In September 1986, Iran’s fury shifted again to Kuwait, with twenty-eight of the next thirty-one attacks directed at Kuwait-bound shipping.

The potential protection offered by the U.S. Navy against Iran was not lost on Kuwaiti leaders, particularly Oil Minister Sheikh Ali Khalifa, who was becoming increasingly concerned by Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti shipping. On December 23, 1986, Kuwait made a formal inquiry to the U.S. embassy about registering some of its tankers as American, specifically asking whether such tankers reflagged under the Stars and Stripes would receive U.S. Navy protection. To Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Kuwait’s request offered a golden opportunity to solve many security dilemmas: to reestablish American credibility in the eyes of Gulf allies after the Iran-Contra disclosures, to establish a strong military presence in the volatile Persian Gulf, and to contain Iranian expansionism.

The Kuwaiti proposal was not universally supported in Washington. Kuwait had diplomatic ties with Moscow and had displayed an anti-American bias in its foreign policy. Even those supporting the reflagging idea, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Murphy, believed that the United States needed to move methodically and first build supportive coalitions with the GCC and European countries rather than to commit to unilateral action to protect Kuwait. The strongest opposition came from the U.S. Navy itself, which objected to the diversion of resources away from the Atlantic and Pacific fleets and balked at the increased tempo needed to operate in the Persian Gulf. Secretary of the Navy James Webb questioned the wisdom of deploying U.S. warships to the Gulf and getting directly involved in the Iran-Iraq War—an argument that later gained credence following the inadvertent May 17, 1987, attack by Iraq on the USS Stark.

When Kuwait threatened to turn to the Soviet Union for protection of its tankers, President Ronald Reagan approved the escort operation. In March 1987, the United States agreed to protect eleven Kuwaiti tankers. For legal reasons, the vessels needed to be American owned, and Kuwait established an American front company, Chesapeake Shipping, Inc., headquartered in Delaware, to serve as its American “owner” for the tankers. The first tanker was reregistered by the end of June: the 400,000-ton al-Rekkah, now renamed the Bridgeton.

U.S. assumptions about deterrence

Executing the escort mission—named Operation Earnest Will—fell to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which planned a conventional escort operation based upon deterrence. A key planning assumption was that Iran would not risk war by directly challenging the escort operations. As the CENTCOM commander, Marine Gen. George Crist wrote to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. William Crowe, “It appears unlikely that Iran will intentionally attack a U.S. combatant or a Kuwait-owned tanker under U.S. escort.” Crowe agreed with this assessment—as did the U.S. intelligence community, which predicted Iran’s response to Operation Earnest Will in order of probability: (1) increased attacks on unescorted shipping, (2) harassment mining, (3) increased terrorism against potential U.S. and Kuwaiti targets in the region, (4) attacks on escorted ships, and (5) attacks on U.S. warships. CENTCOM had contingency plans should Iran attack a convoy, but U.S. military leaders remained convinced that the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the region would discourage an Iranian attack on U.S. convoys.

On May 16, 1987, the 68,000-ton Soviet tanker Marshall Chuykov struck an Iranian-laid mine as it entered the Mina al-Ahmadi channel—the main deepwater entrance to Kuwait. Over the next thirty-three days, three more ships hit mines. Though mining was a predicted Iranian course of action, U.S. planners failed to appreciate the scale and effectiveness of such asymmetrical attacks. In response, the U.S. military dispatched a mine countermeasures team and placed a helicopter mine countermeasure squadron (HM-14, based in Norfolk, Virginia) on a seventy-two-hour alert for possible deployment to the Persian Gulf. CENTCOM assumed that this mining would be limited to intimidating Kuwait. Once the convoys began, CENTCOM assessed, Iran would be forced to accept their reality.

However, there was nothing to prevent Iran from expanding its mining. Although the Strait of Hormuz was too deep and swift for effective mining with Iran’s existing mines, Tehran was able to mine the shallower Gulf route used by the convoys. The Pentagon’s reliance on the regional deterrence doctrine, and CENTCOM’s assumption that Iran would not directly challenge the U.S. convoys, would prove to be embarrassingly wrong.

The first convoy began on July 22, 1987. Eight naval combatants were assigned to the Gulf for Operation Earnest Will, with three providing a close escort for two reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, the Gas Prince and the Bridgeton, along the entire five-hundred-mile sea-lane from the Gulf of Oman to Kuwait. U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance aircraft and carrier-based tactical aircraft provided cover around the Strait of Hormuz. The Saudis agreed to allow the basing of aerial surveillance aircraft from their airfields during the convoy operations and deployed their own F-15s to protect the convoys should the AWACS aircraft detect an approaching Iranian jet. To avoid any accidental attacks by Iran or Iraq, the convoy schedule was published in advance.

On the night of July 23, a small Iranian logistics vessel departed Farsi Island and laid a string of nine SADAF-02 mines—a variant of a North Korean contact mine packed with 243 pounds of explosives—in shallow waters directly across the path of the convoy. The next morning, the Bridgeton struck one these mines. That evening, the Middle East Force commander, Rear Adm. Harold Bernsen, wrote, “The events of this morning . . . represent a distinct and serious change in Iranian policy vis-à-vis U.S. military interests in the Gulf. There is no question that Iranian forces specially targeted the escort transit group and placed mines in the water with the intent to damage/ sink as many ships as possible.”

As Bernsen later noted, “The day we hit the mine was very important because it meant that deterrence would not succeed and the Iranian leadership had decided to take their chances by directly challenging the U.S. The threat of the carrier was not enough— deterrence failed.” The mining of the Bridgeton forced CENTCOM to radically change its approach to the convoy operations and ushered in a massive escalation in U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency at sea

The force that was “directly challenging the U.S.,” however, was not the conventional Iranian military. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated that only about half of Iran’s aircraft were operational—perhaps little more than three dozen aircraft, most of which were committed to the Iraqi front.20 These estimates of Iranian aircraft availability were in fact too low; however, in the three airfields known to operate attack aircraft over the Persian Gulf, U.S. intelligence consistently counted only thirteen F-4s and four F-14s. The most important of these airfields for the convoys passing Bandar Abbas, on Iran’s southern coast, had only four to six operational F-4s.21 In terms of sea power, the vestiges of the shah’s once-impressive navy suffered from the U.S.-imposed arms embargo. By 1986, the fleet had only one functioning Harpoon antiship missile, which was on board the missile boat Joshan.

To be sure, the chief problem for the U.S. military in the Gulf was unconventional: the swarms of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) small boats, a combination of fast Swedish-built Boghammers and “Boston Whaler”–type small boats armed with a hodgepodge of 107-millimeter rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns. The highly maneuverable small boats could also function as improvised minelayers in numerous shallow chokepoints along the five-hundred-mile convoy route. U.S. intelligence reports advised that Iran was committed to launching such indirect attacks to thwart the more powerful U.S. Navy.22 Thus Iran’s threat stemmed not from a traditional blue water naval operation but, rather, from a force that more closely resembled a landbased insurgency—a “guerilla war at sea,” as the CENTCOM Commander called it. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy possessed neither the special plans nor the special equipment needed to deal with the unique challenges posed by the new Iranian threat.

Iran’s seaborne insurgency posed a particular problem in the northern Gulf, near where the Bridgeton met misfortune. The United States needed to maintain a permanent presence along the fifty- to seventy-mile tanker route running past Farsi Island. But with the threat of mines and the spillover of the Iran-Iraq War, CENTCOM did not want to station large U.S. warships in this hazardous area. The IRGCN had operated unhindered near Farsi Island, and U.S. military planners began referring to the area in briefings as “Indian country.”

On August 6, 1987, the Middle East Force commander, Admiral Bernsen, sent a concept-of-operations report to CENTCOM with an imaginative solution: “In my view, to be successful in the northern Gulf we must establish intensive patrol operations to prevent the Iranians from laying mines. I believe we can achieve the desired results with a mix of relatively small patrol craft, boats, and [helicopters]. . . .” Bernsen’s idea was to approach the problem as a land-based counterinsurgency operation rather than a traditional fleet-onfleet operation. To be sure, the new Iranian threat drew more parallels with the U.S. experience in Vietnam or, indeed, with recent counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. Drawing on an operational concept in the Vietnam War—Sea Float—the United States would establish floating patrol bases and then control the northern Gulf through an armed presence and patrols. U.S. forces would maintain a full-time presence in the combat zone, presaging similar tactics used in current counterinsurgencies. As Gen. David Petraeus noted in April 2009 vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan, “You can’t commute to the fight. You can’t clear and leave. You have to clear and hold, and then build.”

Admiral Bernsen recommended establishing waterborne patrol bases, or Mobile Sea Bases, and using U.S. patrol boats, helicopters, and Navy SEALs to conduct intensive patrols to prevent Iran from laying mines or using its IRGCN small boats to attack the convoys. CENTCOM’s General Crist liked the idea. It reminded him of a successful 1972 Vietnam operation called MARHUK (Marine Hunter Killer), in which Marine attack helicopters were stationed on board a Navy amphibious ship to interdict small boats ferrying supplies along the North Vietnamese coast. But Admiral Bernsen’s proposal was not popular with the uniformed services, especially the Navy, which argued strenuously that the sea bases would be highly vulnerable to Iranian air attack. Nevertheless, both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Crowe, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage were familiar with Sea Float from their service in Vietnam. With their backing, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger approved the Mobile Sea Base deployment.

Operational results

With Kuwait funding the project, CENTCOM leased two large oil construction platforms to serve as waterborne patrol bases, the Hercules and Wimbrown VII. The Hercules was one of the largest construction barges in the world at 400 feet by 140 feet, with a large distinctive crane nicknamed “Clyde.” The Hercules had the added advantage of being surrounded by a floodable tank, which would provide excellent protection against a mine strike. CENTCOM stationed special operations forces on each barge, consisting of four sixty-five foot Mark III patrol boats; three Army Special Forces “Seabat” helicopters; a SEAL platoon; and a reinforced Marine platoon. Additional assets such as an explosive ordnance team and a Marine radio reconnaissance linguist and communications element on the Hercules brought the total number of military personnel aboard to 177 for the Hercules and 132 for the Wimbrown.

These forces patrolled a fifty-mile stretch of the tanker route. The patrol boats maintained a twenty-four-hour presence on the water to prevent penetration by Iranian small craft; the helicopters provided a quick reaction force and nighttime surveillance. Should the Iranians get past the helicopters and U.S. patrol boats to attack the barges, each was reinforced with metal plating and 20,000 sandbags. The marines provided local security, manning a variety of weapons including heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, antiaircraft guns, mortars, and Stinger missiles. For additional protection, the barges were moved randomly every few days.

CENTCOM was in charge of addressing the Iranian insurgency in the south and central Gulf along several concurrent lines of operation, focusing on mine countermeasures, surveillance, and intelligence. It formed a new operational headquarters—Joint Task Force Middle East ( JTFME)—to control the expanded operations, and the Navy rushed additional warships to the Gulf. Nearly thirty ships were committed to the convoy effort at its operational peak in September 1987. The mission was to implement an aggressive surveillance and presence operation designed to prevent future Iranian mine-laying or small-boat attacks, and the force concept included the formation of hunter-killer teams of Army helicopters positioned on Navy warships that were capable of moving quickly to interdict a suspicious Iranian vessel. For operational purposes, the Gulf was divided into roughly eight zones of interest, each of which had served continuously as a station for U.S. combatant craft and helicopters. Additional surveillance and strike assets arrived in the Gulf, including Marine Cobra helicopters, P-3 Orion aircraft, and Navy Light Airborne Multipurpose System helicopters equipped with surface search radar. Surveillance craft concentrated on the natural chokepoints along the tanker route, especially around the Iranian island of Abu Musa and in the shallow waters near the Iranian oil platform complexes of Rostam, Sirri, and Sassan.31 U.S. Army Special Forces A-6 “Seabats” helicopters augmented the Navy’s regional helicopter fleet. Exceedingly quiet and designed to fly at night, the Seabats were outfitted with forward-looking infrared radar sensors, rockets, and 7.62-millimeter miniguns.

To support CENTCOM, the intelligence community devoted considerable resources to monitoring Iranian operations. The DIA established a special “fusion cell” in the region and began an intelligence-sharing program with British and Gulf Arab intelligence agencies specifically to exchange information on IRGCN operations. SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft flew missions to provide photographic intelligence on Silkworm missile sites and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) bases. Navy P-3 aircraft, with their excellent surface search radar, were invaluable for monitoring the Iranian small boats. In a unique concept, the National Security Agency provided individual Navy ships near-real-time signals intelligence for tactical forces.

The new surveillance effort achieved some immediate successes in 1987: 

• In August, U.S. intelligence learned of an Iranian plan to mine the UAE anchorage where the convoys formed. Although U.S. forces in the region lacked the mandate to prevent the mining, the Operation Earnest Will convoys changed their formation venues well away from the danger area.

• On September 19, U.S. intelligence detected the Iranian logistical vessel Iran Ajr getting under way for another mining operation. The United States moved the USS Jarrett with two Army helicopters on board to monitor the Iranian ship. When Army pilots observed mines being pushed over the side, the helicopters opened fire with rockets and machine guns, killing at least three Iranian crewmen. The Iranians abandoned ship. The next morning, a SEAL platoon boarded and secured the Iran Ajr as U.S. patrol boats plucked the Iranians from the water. The capture of the Iran Ajr was a windfall for the United States. The next day, newspapers carried photos of the ship with her cargo of mines clearly visible on her open deck. “It did much to undermine [Iran’s] credibility in the eyes of the world and enhance international support for our endeavor,” Secretary Weinberger later said.

• On October 6, the commander of Mobile Sea Base Hercules, Lt. Cdr. Paul Evancoe, decided to launch his own mission to gather intelligence on Farsi Island. Two U.S. patrol boats were dispatched to a navigation buoy called the Middle Shoals Buoy, approximately fifteen miles west of Farsi Island and eight miles northeast of the Hercules. Three Army Seabats would fly a different route, arriving to scout out the buoy ahead of the slower-moving patrol boats.35 At the Middle Shoals Buoy, the Army helicopters detected IRGCN small boats. As the helicopters closed in, an Iranian crew member opened fire with a heavy machine gun. The United States responded with a hail of rocket and machine-gun fire. The bombardment quickly dispatched the three boats, killing nine IRGCN sailors; four others were captured.

• Unwilling to attack the United States directly, Iran decided to target Kuwait again. On October 15, Iran launched two captured Iraqi Silkworm missiles from al-Faw toward Kuwait harbor. One missile hit the reflagged tanker Sea Isle City, injuring fifteen crewmen and permanently blinding a U.S. Navy captain. President Ronald Reagan ordered a limited retaliation by destroying the Rostam oil platform, which had been a key link in the IRGCN operations.

Escalation of force in 1988

In February 1988, the United States began executing a more aggressive strategy against Iran to increase the pressure on the IRGCN. While the United States remained bound by strict rules of engagement that did not allow U.S. warships to come to the aid of neutral ships under attack, the new U.S. secretary of defense, Frank Carlucci, and Admiral Crowe agreed on the need to harass the Iranian fleet. Over the next two months, U.S. warships aggressively shadowed their Iranian counterparts. In one instance, the Iranian frigate Sahand nearly collided and exchanged fire with the USS Samuel B. Roberts during a high-speed game of chicken. Yet the aggressive tactic worked: Iranian attacks in the Gulf declined.

The IRGCN countered by launching another mining campaign against the U.S. naval forces in the region. On April 14, 1988, lookouts on the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts sighted three mines directly ahead of the ship. As the Roberts reversed engines in an attempt to retrace its path and maneuver out of the minefield, it hit a fourth mine. The blast caused extensive fire and flooding, injuring ten sailors. A later examination revealed that the explosion had cracked the ship’s entire hull; only the deck plate had held the ship together.

President Reagan ordered a military response: U.S. forces destroyed two Iranian oil platforms, Sassan and Sirri, both important IRGCN staging bases. Sassan was one of the largest Iranian offshore platforms and actually comprised seven interconnected platforms. A proposal was made to add air or cruise missile strikes against selected IRGCN targets at Bandar Abbas, but Washington rejected the idea of initiating any attack on the Iranian mainland. However, at Admiral Crowe’s insistence, CENTCOM was also ordered to sink one Iranian naval combatant. To the Joint Chiefs chairman, Iran had deliberately attacked a U.S. warship; the U.S. response should be to put one of theirs “on the bottom.” Crowe singled out the Sabalan because of its infamous reputation for deliberately attacking the crew quarters of neutral ships.

Operation Praying Mantis began on the morning of April 18. U.S. Marines and Navy SEALs simultaneously attacked Sassan and Sirri. A few dedicated defenders remained on both platforms, opening fire on U.S. warships from the Sirri with an Iranian twenty three- millimeter antiaircraft gun. U.S. vessels returned fire, silencing the gun; one shell struck a compressed gas tank, incinerating the remaining defenders, but the resulting fire prevented the boarding of Sirri by a U.S. SEAL platoon. Meanwhile, Marine Cobra helicopters and naval forces raked Sassan with gunfire. Marines fast-roped onto the burning structure. After securing it, the Marines withdrew and detonated 1,300 pounds of explosives.

The Iranian missile boat Joshan was ordered to head south and reinforce Sirri. Although relatively small, the Joshan packed a powerful punch, with the only working American-made Harpoon missile in the Iranian inventory. The cruiser USS Wainwright issued four separate warnings to the Joshan not to approach the U.S. warships. The Iranian vessel declared that it had no hostile intent and continued to close on the Americans. Now with the Iranian ship coming over the horizon, the Wainwright issued a final warning: “Stop and abandon ship; I intend to sink you.” Thereupon, the Iranian captain decided to unleash his Harpoon missile. The Wainwright fired its chaff canisters and initiated electronic countermeasures. The missile passed down the starboard side of the Wainwright—no more than a hundred feet from the ship. The U.S. warships responded with six standard missiles (SM-1s) and a Harpoon of their own, reducing the Joshan to a hulk. The U.S. warships then closed and finished off the Joshan with their guns, leaving the few survivors, including the grievously injured captain, to be picked up by a nearby fishing boat.41 Next, an Iranian F-4 headed out into the Gulf, with its search radar active. The Wainwright fired two surface-to-air missiles. One hit the Iranian aircraft, blowing off part of its wing and peppering the fuselage with shrapnel. In a display of amazing flying prowess, the Iranian pilot managed to land his damaged airplane at Bandar Abbas.

The IRGCN then ordered five Boghammers out of Abu Musa Island to attack the neighboring UAE Mubarak oil fields. After spraying several ships and a portable drilling rig with machine-gun fire and grenades (but causing no casualties), the Iranian ships returned to the island to celebrate and rearm. An hour later, the IRGCN boats ventured out again to attack UAE facilities. U.S. intelligence learned of the impending attack, and the Joint Task Force vectored in two A-6 aircraft. Swooping over the fast-moving boats, they dropped Rockeye bomblets and a five-hundred-pound bomb, sinking one boat and sending the remaining vessels back to Abu Musa Island, where the boats beached themselves.

While the Sassan and Sirri platforms were being destroyed, another U.S. Navy surface action group, made up of the warships Jack Williams, Joseph Strauss, and O’Brien, were transiting the Strait of Hormuz looking for the Sabalan. Around noon, Iranian surface forces finally stirred from Bandar Abbas. The Sahand was the first under way, heading due south to attack the UAE-owned Saleh oil field. In order to obtain a positive identification of the Iranian ship, a Navy A-6 flew over the Sahand. The Iranians responded by launching a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. The A-6 climbed away and launched one of its own Harpoon missiles. The USS Strauss fired another Harpoon at the Iranian frigate. Both missiles hit with devastating effect, destroying the Sahand’s bridge and command center. Additional U.S. aircraft arrived and rained thousand pound bombs down on the helpless ship. Reduced to a burning hulk, the Sahand sank during the night, taking with it as many as fifty Iranian crewmen.

Late in the afternoon, the Sabalan finally steamed out of Bandar Abbas. The Iranian vessel fired three missiles at the nearby U.S. Navy A-6 attack aircraft. The U.S. planes veered to avoid the missiles, and retaliated by dropping a single five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb, which went straight down the Sabalan’s smokestack and exploded in the ship’s engineering spaces. The on-scene commander wanted to launch another air strike to finish off the Sabalan, a request that was relayed to Washington. When Defense Secretary Carlucci asked Admiral Crowe what he thought. Crowe responded, “Sir, I think we’ve shed enough blood today.” Carlucci agreed and the United States allowed the Sabalan to be towed back into port. With the first two ships to venture from Bandar Abbas sunk or incapacitated, no further Iranian ships ventured forth to do battle.

The daylong fight had been a disaster for Iran. Although the United States lost one helicopter to non hostile causes, the Iranian military had committed its air and naval forces piecemeal into the Gulf. With its platforms destroyed and unable to get any air surveillance over the Gulf, Iran operated in the blind against the U.S. Navy. The outcome was never in doubt.

After Operation Praying Mantis, Iran backed off from engaging the U.S. military. Having lost its most capable ships, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy kept its remaining combatants in port for most of the remainder of the Iran-Iraq War. Even the IRGCN’s enthusiasm was diminished. Attacks by small boats dropped dramatically over the next two months. In June 1988, Iraqi counterattacks drove Iranian forces back to the border. One more clash occurred between IRGCN small boats and U.S. warships on July 3, an engagement largely instigated by the overaggressive captain of the USS Vincennes. During an exchange of gunfire with small boats, the U.S. cruiser accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians. Defeated by Iraq and now convinced that the United States had deliberately shot down the plane to force Iran to end the war, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini finally agreed to a ceasefire, ending the eight-year conflict. With the Iran-Iraq War over, Operation Earnest Will formally ended the following year.

David B. Crist, a senior historian in the Joint History Office, Joint Chiefs of Staff, has written and spoken extensively about contemporary military history, especially on operations in the Middle East. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and has served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq with Coalition Joint Special Operations Task Forces. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense. This article is an outgrowth of his dissertation research, and is adapted from his larger work Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea, a Policy Focus published by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.


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