America and Iran
|David B. Crist||July 20th 2009|
Washington Institute Contributor
|U.S. Naval Carrier|
Iran’s military approach in its 1980s clashes with the United States show that the Teheran regime pursued one simple objective in opposing the U.S. escort of Kuwait’s tankers: force the U.S. Navy out of the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s leaders viewed the U.S. decision to safeguard the Kuwaiti tankers as a direct intervention in their war with Iraq. It was a common belief in Tehran at the time that the Iraqi invasion had been carried out at the behest of Washington to undermine the Islamic Revolution. With Iran’s dramatic seizure of the al-Faw Peninsula in February 1986, the United States had intervened to support Baghdad. According to U.S. intelligence, one Iranian commander at Bandar Abbas stated that the United States seemed intent on doing everything to "protect" Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s war machine. And since Kuwait was one of Iraq’s chief financial supporters, safeguarding the emirate’s oil tankers was tantamount to aiding Baghdad’s war effort.
Iranian caution and restraint
To achieve its immediate war goal, Tehran moved cautiously. While a few Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers advocated a direct confrontation with the "Great Satan," Iranian leaders did not want to take overt action that might produce a significant military response for which they were unprepared, or an action that would undermine their standing in the international community as the victim of Iraqi aggression. One of the first indications of this policy occurred after Saudi Arabia shot down an Iranian F-4 in June 1984. Privately, the Saudi government feared the downing of the Iranian fighter would lead to an escalation of Iranian attacks on Saudi shipping, yet the Iranians drew a very different lesson from the incident: They never again challenged the Fahd Line or used their aviation resources to attack shipping in the northern Persian Gulf.
Iranian officials also showed great prudence in taking overt military actions against the United States. A good example of this was the decision not to use their recently acquired Chinese Silkworm cruise missiles against U.S. forces. While guided by relatively unsophisticated radar systems, Silkworms carried a thousand- pound warhead. Beginning in February 1987, Iran constructed a series of nine Silkworm missile sites ringing the Strait of Hormuz, on Qeshm Island, and near Kishk outside the Gulf. Any ship entering the Gulf had to pass through the Silkworm missile envelope, and the Pentagon regarded these missiles as the most potent conventional threat to convoy operations.
According to then National Security Agency director Lt. Gen. William Odom, the Iranian government viewed these missiles as a strategic asset: The control of the missiles was highly centralized, and their use required release authority from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. In June 1987, the United States relayed a stern warning to Tehran via the Swiss embassy against using Silkworm missiles. Washington viewed use of the Silkworms against the Kuwaiti convoys as a serious matter—tantamount to a declaration of war.4 While Iran never responded to the U.S. demarche, it understood the message.
Despite all the hostility between the two nations over the coming year, Iran never fired a single Silkworm missile from its sites around the Strait of Hormuz. Although there were reports of Silkworm missiles being used during Operation Praying Mantis, the after-action review revealed no evidence of a Silkworm missile being used around the Strait of Hormuz, although Iran may have modified a Maverick missile for surface-to-surface use. The threshold warnings against the use of Silkworms appeared to be somewhat lower in the northern Gulf, especially in Iran’s attacks against Kuwaiti ships and port facilities.
In response to the firefight a week earlier between U.S. helicopters and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) speedboat, Iran fired two captured Iraqi Silkworms at Kuwait on October 15 and 16, 1987, with each striking a tanker—one the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City. During Operation Praying Mantis, Iran launched another Silkworm from al-Faw in the general direction of the Mobile Sea Bases, just before Iraqi forces overran the missile position.
Iran’s selective use of the Silkworms was part of its overall attempt to perform a balancing act in regional policy: inflict enough damage and casualties to rouse a skeptical U.S. Congress to demand a withdrawal from the Gulf, while maintaining plausible deniability to avoid international retribution. In Tehran’s eyes, Washington appeared unwilling to pay a high price for its involvement in the Middle East.
The bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah had forced the U.S. withdrawal from Beirut. Despite vows of retribution by President Ronald Reagan, Washington never retaliated militarily. The Iranian government noticed the outcry in Congress and even within the U.S. Navy to reduce the military presence in the Gulf following the inadvertent Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in May 1987, which killed thirty-seven sailors. Both of these incidents reinforced Tehran’s view that America was unwilling to accept casualties for a presence in the region.
After seven years of war and revolution, Iran had limited conventional military capability to threaten the U.S. convoys. A combination of spare parts shortages and combat losses greatly diminished its fleet of fixed-wing combat aircraft. Iran’s once impressive navy under the shah was also in disrepair: By 1986, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) had 15,000 men and eighteen surface combatants. Spare parts shortages effectively reduced this number of combat vessels by half. At any given time, only 10 percent of the Iranian fleet was at sea; Iran had only one functioning Harpoon antiship missile. The bulk of IRIN operations fell to four 1,500-ton British Vosper-built frigates, each armed with small Sea Killer antiship missiles and a 4.5- inch rapid-fire main gun.
The most substantial force available to combat the United States was the newly formed IRGCN. In July 1985, the IRGCN executed one of its first naval operations by seizing and briefly holding the Kuwaiti freighter al-Muharraq. The IRGCN quickly grew and by early 1987, became the primary means of attacking Gulf shipping. The backbone of the IRGCN was an improvised fleet of a hundred small boats, a combination of "Boston Whaler"–type boats and fast Swedish-built Boghammers. In 1984, over American objections, the Swedish government allowed the sale of nearly forty of these so-called cabin cruisers to Iran, and the IRGCN impressed every boat. Forty-one feet long and powered by twin Volvo engines, they could reach a speed of forty-five knots. Armed with 107-millimeter rockets, RPG-7s, and 12.7-millimeter machine guns, this "mosquito fleet" lacked the firepower to sink an oil tanker, but could inflict serious damage and kill its crewmen.
Asymmetric attacks: U.S. fears and Iranian realities
Two indirect, or asymmetrical, methods were available for Iran to attack U.S. forces—namely, terrorism and mining. Tehran actively employed terrorism to strike and intimidate the Islamic Republic’s enemies, while maintaining the outward appearance of comity within the region. As with its shipping attacks, Tehran’s terrorism centered on Iraq’s supporters, particularly Kuwait. On December 12, 1983, a series of car and truck bombings rocked Kuwait City and nearby industrial areas, targeting the U.S. and French embassies, the airport, the main oil refinery, and the Shuaiba petrochemical plant. Those responsible turned out to belong to a terrorist group called al-Dawa ("The Call"), an Iranian-backed Shiite group headquartered in downtown Tehran. On March 27, 1984, a joint CIA–Defense Intelligence Agency estimate warned of further Iranian terrorist attacks, and the warnings validated when Iranian-sponsored bombings took place in Kuwait in June 1986 and January 1987.
The U.S. Navy worried about Iranian suicide boats or saboteurs attacking the convoys or ships in port—a fate that later befell the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. To counter possible Iranian commando assaults, the Navy deployed proximity sensors, underwater strobe lights, and antiswimmer nets around the U.S. anchorage at Mina al-Suleiman Pier. At one point, even specially trained dolphins were sent to Bahrain to detect Iranian frogmen. Tragically, on the evening of November 1, 1987, the frigate Carr was escorting a U.S. merchant ship when it opened fire with its heavy machine gun on a suspected suicide vessel, which a subsequent investigation revealed to be a small craft smuggling goods to Iran.
Despite these concerns, there is no evidence that Iran ever attempted either a suicide attack or a commando operation against U.S. forces. Suicide bombing was not in the IRGCN’s operational playbook in the 1980s, and as one retired intelligence officer has noted, Iranians have preferred to use surrogates to commit suicide attacks. However, the IRGCN did at least consider using swimmers to plant mines on the hulls of anchored U.S. warships, but Iran lacked both the trained personnel and the means to effectively deliver their swimmers to Bahrain.
In August 1984, a Libyan ship laid mines in the Red Sea, playing havoc with Western shipping in the Suez Canal. Although U.S. intelligence soon uncovered Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi’s culpability, the incident remained mysterious enough that Libya suffered no consequences from its mining of international waters.12 Such plausible deniability afforded by naval mines strongly appealed to the Iranian leadership: It provided a low-risk means of striking at the United States and ran a minimal risk of retaliation. Unless an Iranian vessel was caught in the act of laying mines, Iranian officials believed, it would be difficult for Washington to justify a military response.
In 1981, in order to blockade Iraq, the Islamic Republic purchased stocks of two different types of unsophisticated moored contact mines from North Korea: the small Myam (SADAF-01) mine with only a forty-four-pound explosive charge and the much larger M-08 (SADAF-02). The latter was a pre– World War I, Russian-designed mine, packing an explosive charge of nearly 250 pounds. Neither mine could be used in deep water, such as the Strait of Hormuz, but both could be laid throughout the shallower Arab side of the Persian Gulf. The IRGC reverse engineered the North Korean mines and began producing an Iranian version of these two mines. By July 1985, the first of the Iranian-designated SADAF-01 and SADAF-02 mines began rolling off the production lines at an ammunition plant north of Tehran; about twenty SADAFs were produced each week.
There was general agreement among the various factions in the Iranian government on using mines. Iran publicly praised those responsible for laying the mines as "God’s angels that descend and do what is necessary." From the first authorized mining of Kuwait harbor in May 1987 until April 1988, Iran laid ninety-one mines in six separate attacks directed at the American convoy operation.
Initial success emboldened Iran in using mines. The IRGCN cautiously employed mines in its first operation, using simple local dhows (small boats) to lay fourteen mines at night at the entrance to Kuwait’s main shipping channel. Despite damaging four ships, Iran faced no recriminations. Tehran’s next operation was more audacious, with the IRGCN laying a string of mines directly across the path of the first U.S. convoy during Operation Earnest Will, one of which was struck by the tanker Bridgeton. The IRGCN came back later to lay another row of shallower SADAF-01 mines, deliberately targeting the U.S. countermine vessels deployed to clear the first mine line. Washington failed to retaliate despite positive proof obtained by U.S. and British intelligence that mines used in both the Bridgeton and Kuwaiti attacks had been produced in Iran. The next month, Iran employed a large IRIN logistics vessel to target the rendezvous of convoy off the United Arab Emirates (UAE) coast. And when alerted of a scheduled deployment of the flagship of the U.S. naval force, the USS LaSalle, Iran brazenly decided to target it with the Iran Ajr.
The Iranian reaction following the U.S. capture of the Iran Ajr sheds significant light on Iran’s operational calculations. The operation had backfired, prompting European nations to dispatch their own minesweepers to the Gulf and increasing Gulf Cooperation Council support for the U.S. military effort against Iran. For the next six months, Iran refrained from any further mining operations.
However, after eight years of war with Iraq, Iran’s economic and military ability to continue the war was in question. Time was not on Iran’s side: In early 1988, Iranian leaders debated the wisdom of renewing their mining campaign. The more truculent members of the Iranian leadership vocally argued that Iran needed to deal a decisive blow. Others advocated avoiding a confrontation with the United States: Iran had enough trouble with Iraq, they argued, to embark on an action that would induce greater U.S. military commitment against Iran. But those demanding action won the debate. Once again, the IRGCN deliberately targeted U.S. ships, laying mines across the convoy route. One of these mines found the Samuel B. Roberts.
The drubbing experienced by the Iranian military during the subsequent Operation Praying Mantis, reinforced by the Iran Ajr fiasco, strengthened the more pragmatic factions within the government. According to both U.S. and British intelligence reports following the engagement, there were political recriminations in Tehran against those who had advocated the mine attack on the Roberts. For the next three months, until the ceasefire ended the Iran-Iraq War in July 1988, the IRGCN never again conducted a mining operation.
Additionally, the sparing of the Sabalan had a surprising effect on the Iranian leadership. Those leaders who understood the power of the U.S. military were surprised that Washington had spared the ship. "It was as if God himself had gently touched her with his little finger," a senior Iranian official remarked. In a meeting with an Arab counterpart, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati expressed amazement that the United States did not sink the ship: "I never expected the United States to show that kind of mercy." How much impact this had on Iranian politics is not known, but it appears that the power displayed by the United States undercut the hardliners’ arguments for attacking U.S. forces. Such reluctance was maintained even after the Vincennes’s accidental downing of Iran Air Flight 655.
Iran employed conventional tactics in its mining operations. Initially it used large fishing dhows, which mingled with the normal fishing and smuggling traffic. Later, the IRGCN switched to using IRIN logistics or amphibious vessels with a large flat open deck for storing and dropping the mines. Despite the fact that the amphibious craft operated from IRIN vessels, the mining was always conducted and controlled by an IRGCN special missions unit.
Because the deepwater channels of the Persian Gulf were located in the Iranian exclusion zone, the U.S. convoys were forced to travel through the Gulf along a shallower southern route. This route offered the IRGCN a number of areas where the Iranian- produced mines, which were not suitable for use in deep water, could be deployed. Iran closely monitored the first convoy’s progress, ascertaining its speed and location, and laid a line of mines over the shallow Shah Allum shoals, west of Farsi Island and directly in the convoy’s path.
Subsequent Iranian mining operations followed a similar modus operandi. Under the cover of darkness—preferably with zero percent illumination— the minelayer would dim its navigation lights and maintain a consistent speed and heading, guiding from navigation buoys or fixed light on the horizon. One IRGCN officer held a stopwatch while other men methodically inserted detonators into the black spherical objects arranged on top of the flat open deck. Every ten or fifteen seconds (depending on the ship’s speed and the desired distance between mines) the officer ordered a mine dropped, with each carefully rolled to the edge of a plank protruding off the side and pushed into the blackness below.
The IRGCN improved on its technique. The first mining operation off Kuwait in May 1987 was conducted by two large Iranian dhows from Bushehr. Each laid seven mines in two parallel rows that radiated from one of the navigation buoys. The mines were only thirty meters apart, meaning that they were pushed off one after the other. The Bridgeton mine line was evenly spaced to cover the entire tanker track and was supported by another small line of Myams targeted at the U.S. countermine vessels. The April 1988 mining that damaged the Roberts was conducted by a much larger
ship: the 200-foot Charak. Twelve mines were arrayed in a circular pattern, where shoals forced the tanker route into a natural deepwater channel, intending to saturate the area and increase the chances of finding a target. Either that night or the next, another ship (probably the Charak’s sister, the Souru) undertook a similar mission some sixty miles to the southeast, along an early Operation Earnest Will tanker track that had not been used for several convoys.
To minimize interference with their own fishing and smuggling boats, the Iranians set the mines’ depth to at least fifteen to twenty feet, well below the depth of a dhow, but high enough to strike a large oil tanker. But because of the poor quality of the SADAF-02 design, the mines often failed to deploy at the correct height, with some deploying at such a shallow depth that they were clearly visible bobbing on the surface of the water.
Command and Control
The Iranian military struggled to conduct joint operations. A significant part of the problem stemmed from the decision to operate two independent navies: the regular navy and the IRGCN. The two forces operated from some of the same bases, particularly Bandar Abbas and Bushehr, but the IRGCN maintained a parallel and independent command. Both the regular navy and IRGCN were (and still are) divided into four district commands. Each had the same designations, so the First Naval District in Bandar Abbas or the Second Naval District in Bushehr was the same headquarters’ name for both the regular navy and IRGCN. Nevertheless, other than the title, the two commands operated separately. In 1987, the Iranians attempted to form a joint headquarters to coordinate IRGCN and regular naval operations, but the effort failed when the IRGCN refused to cooperate and subordinate its operations under a single command. As a result, coordinating joint operations—even from the same port— proved problematic with the two separate chains of command.
As the conflict with the United States escalated, the regime began to question the loyalty of the IRIN. The naval wing of the IRGC was formed much later than its land counterpart to augment its depleted conventional air and naval capabilities. Yet it also served as somewhat of a check against an IRIN whose many officers still harbored affection for their former ally, the United States. As a result, Tehran began to rely more on the IRGCN, which rapidly became the more powerful of the two navies. One of the first examples of the IRGCN’s growing power occurred in June 1985, when the IRGCN forced the IRIN commander to resign over his opposition to the IRGCN’s brief seizure of a Kuwaiti-flagged ship.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the IRGCN and the regular navy was poor, but the contentious relationship went deeper than simply turf battles and influence: The IRIN was a professional force whose senior officers had been trained in the West; the IRGCN consisted of amateur officers who made up for their lack of training with revolutionary élan. IRGCN rank-and-file sailors were a blend of dedicated revolutionaries and impressed conscripts. One IRGCN sailor had been a deserter from the army, yet the IRGCN press-ganged him off the street. Privately, many professional Iranian naval officers held the IRGCN in contempt, viewing its members as arrogant and undisciplined. The IRGCN saw the regular navy as too conservative and still too sympathetic to its former ally, the U.S. Navy.
At times, both forces showed a lack of discipline. Individual commanders disregarded orders from their respective district headquarters. In July 1987, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, then speaker of the Majlis, assured Japan’s foreign minister that Iran would not attack Japanese shipping in the Gulf. But independent-minded IRGCN officers subsequently attacked two Japanese tankers. The captain of the Navy frigate Sabalan, Lt. Cdr. Abdollah Manavi, who later rose to the rank of vice admiral and head of naval operations, earned the reputation of being a rogue commander. A zealot, Manavi on numerous occasions ignored orders from First Naval District headquarters in Bandar Abbas not to fire on specific merchant ships. In the Japanese tanker incident, Manavi acknowledged receipt of the order and then opened fire on the hapless tanker, reputedly aiming at the bridge and living quarters to kill as many of the crew members as possible. For this, Captain Manavi earned the apt nickname "Captain Nasty."
Coordination between the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) and the naval forces proved equally ad hoc. Iran never established a joint command to facilitate air and naval operations. Instead, the regime installed hotlines between the naval district headquarters and the IRIAF operation center at Bandar Abbas and Bushehr, respectively, which enabled the verbal sharing of intelligence and radar tracks on hostile aircraft or U.S. Navy warships. The two services loosely coordinated operations: IRIAF C-130s relayed tracking data to the naval forces on potential targets, and IRIAF jets responded to ongoing naval engagements with Iraq or the United States. Nevertheless, the lack of a unified command invariably led to uncoordinated air and naval attacks.
The strains of combat during Operation Praying Mantis revealed the serious deficiencies in Iranian combined operations. Iranian air, naval, and IRGCN operations were not coordinated, leading to a series of piecemeal commitments of forces. When news of the U.S. attacks on Sirri and Sassan reached Capt. Amir Yeganeh, commander of the First Naval District in Bandar Abbas, he directed his surface forces to move against the Americans. However, the Iranian ships were at various levels of readiness. Rather than wait until all his ships were ready and able to be sent out en masse, Captain Yeganeh ordered each to move as it became available. What small chance of success Iran had evaporated as the Iranian fleet sortied piecemeal from Bandar Abbas, and the vastly superior U.S. forces dealt with each in turn.
Captain Yeganeh first directed the missile boat Joshan, returning from escorting a shuttle tanker to Kharg Island, to head south and reinforce Sirri. Commanded by Lt. Cdr. Abbas Mallek, the Joshan headed toward the powerful U.S. surface group without any support. Complicating Mallek’s mission was the fact that the IRIN operated under strict rules of engagement, as did its U.S. counterpart. The Iranian Navy was specifically prohibited from firing first at a U.S. warship. What Mallek was supposed to do once he confronted U.S. warships at Sirri remained ambiguous, but he brought his boat on a southerly course toward the overwhelmingly powerful U.S. force. Without any support it was suicide, and it is a testament to Mallek’s courage and U.S. timidity that he came so close to nearly crippling a U.S. cruiser.
In addition to diverting the Joshan toward Sirri, Captain Yeganeh ordered the two frigates Sahand and Sabalan, along with an older World War II–era destroyer, to get under way. The Sahand was the first out of Bandar Abbas, and it was quickly dispatched by U.S. air and naval forces. Four hours later, the Sabalan finally ventured out, and it was saved only by U.S. benevolence and strict adherence to the rules of engagement. The third destroyer struggled with mechanical problems; by the time it was ready to sail, it was dark, and the Iranians prudently decided to keep the ship in port.
In between the Sahand and Sabalan sorties, the IRGCN conducted its own attacks on UAE oil fields. Its second attack came when the United States had only two strike aircraft aloft (the rest were being armed and refueled); had it been coordinated with the Sabalan’s movement, at least one effort might have succeeded. Instead, the two navies failed to coordinate operations and both were separated by enough time to allow the same two U.S. aircraft that stopped the Boghammer attacks to move north to attack the Sabalan.
However, despite the Iranian government’s concerns about the loyalty of the regular navy, the IRIN showed more fortitude than the IRGCN during Operation Praying Mantis. Senior U.S. commanders were greatly impressed by the courage of Commander Mallek in steaming his tiny missile boat directly toward a vastly superior U.S. force, including a cruiser thirty times the Joshan’s size. The Sahand commanding officer displayed equal aggressiveness—as did the Sabalan’s skipper, who headed out when ordered despite almost certainly knowing the fate that had befallen his sister ship a few hours earlier. In every case, the IRIN did not hesitate to open fire on the Americans: the Joshan when ordered to abandon ship, and the two frigates when menaced by low-flying U.S. aircraft.
However, unlike its regular navy counterparts, the IRGCN showed little stomach for the fight. The IRGCN had amassed more than sixty small boats at Abu Musa Island before Operation Praying Mantis. It intended to conduct a mass attack against both the UAE and the U.S. Navy, but it managed to conduct one small attack. After U.S. aircraft sank one of its boats, the remainder were beached, while the other IRGCN boats remained safely at pier for the duration of the fight.
The IRIAF suffered the same problems of disconnection. After the U.S. attacks on the Sassan and Sirri platforms, the Iranian air command in Bandar Abbas remained ignorant of the ongoing American attacks or the order for the Joshan to close on Sirri. When Iranian air search radar detected a U.S. F-14 fighter only twelve miles from Iranian airspace, the IRIAF commander believed this was yet another provocative move and ordered his aircraft aloft to chase the U.S. plane away. Only five of his eleven F-4 fighters were functional, and his entire command was distracted by grief, having lost a number of airmen in a C-130 crash three days before. U.S. F-14s immediately responded, supported by EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft that jammed both the Iranian F-4s and Iran’s Hawk antiaircraft missiles that covered the Strait. The Iranian aircraft turned back toward the Iranian mainland, not wishing to tangle with the U.S. fighters. This cat-and-mouse game repeated itself several times, with the Iranians pilots refusing to leave the safety of Iranian airspace. When news of the U.S. attacks finally reached the IRIAF fighter command, a pair of F-4s was ordered southwest; one peeled off and headed out into the Gulf with its search radar active. The Wainwright, having already sunk the Joshan, had plenty of time to switch its focus to the new aerial threat, firing two surface- to-air missiles, one of which seriously damaged one of the Iranian F-4s.
Intelligence and Surveillance
The one area where Iran seemed to coordinate operations reasonably well was in surveillance and tactical intelligence collection. In order for Iran to prosecute attacks on shipping , it needed to monitor ships’ movements in the Persian Gulf. A few aircraft remained in Iran’s inventory for this mission, such as U.S.-made P-3s and C-130s. The P-3s were adept at monitoring U.S. convoys around the Strait of Hormuz and relaying their movements back to the First Naval District in Bandar Abbas. This helped Iran discover the gap in the U.S. surveillance coverage, allowing for the successful mining in April 1988 that nearly sank the Samuel B. Roberts. Iran kept a P-3 aloft during the mining operation and immediately afterward, presumably to ensure that there were no U.S. ships nearby to intervene. In addition, IRIAF C-130s had been used to relay targeting data to the Silkworm missiles, which is why an Iranian C-130 was engaged during Operation Praying Mantis.
Iran showed surprising intelligence collection abilities. For instance, it frequently monitored unsecured radio communications with the reflagged tankers. Several C-130s were outfitted with signals intelligence collection equipment before the fall of the shah, and they proved useful in monitoring U.S. and Iraqi ground and air forces and in ascertaining port destinations of neutral ships, relaying this information to the naval district headquarters.
But the key link in the Iranian monitoring scheme was the Iranian-held islands and oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, which sat astride the tanker routes. Under the command of the IRIN, these venues served as both command and control sites and as forward operating bases. They became staging bases, initially for helicopters and later for IRGCN small boats. They provided an important communications link between the land-based headquarters and naval forces operating in the Gulf some 100–200 miles away. With the exception of Farsi Island, which reported back to the Second Naval District in Bushehr, all of the platforms and islands reported back to the larger First Naval District command in Bandar Abbas.
In February 1986, the First Naval District headquarters published a detailed operations order for tracking and monitoring prospective targets, including U.S. Navy warships. The command divided the southern Gulf and Strait of Hormuz into eastern and western zones and formed subordinate headquarters on Larak, Abu Musa, and just outside the Gulf at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. These subordinates reported directly back to Bandar Abbas over a common radio net to notify the Iranian command of any "suspicious" vessels. Additionally, the IRIN stationed four men on every platform. Operating undercover as employees of the National Iranian Oil Company, they were assigned the mission of monitoring all ships passing their respective platforms and relaying the information back to Bandar Abbas. If the district commander determined that a ship should be attacked, the order would be relayed to any one of the platforms or islands along the ship’s projected path, and IRIN vessels or IRGCN small boats would sally forth. More than one-third of all the Iranian attacks on shipping occurred within fifty nautical miles of the three key platforms of Sirri, Rostam, and Sassan.
IRGCN Small-Boat Operations
By 1987, the IRGCN had assumed the primary role of attacking both neutral ships and threatening U.S. convoys. While deployment of mines represented the most serious threat, small boats accounted for the majority of Iranian attacks. The first such attack occurred in April 1987, and forty-two other vessels met a similar fate that year.
The IRGCN developed simple procedures to attack ships. Operating in groups of three to five boats, they approached their intended target, then sprinted ahead and simply waited for the ship to go by and, from a stationary firing position, raked its bridge and superstructure with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Later the IRGCN developed more sophisticated tactics: their boats approached a ship at high speed from opposite directions, spraying the ship with gunfire in repeated, coordinated passing attacks.
Offshore oil platforms served as important bases and staging areas for IRGCN small boats. While the IRIN ran the platforms’ operations, the IRGCN small boats were required to use the platforms as staging bases, because they could not operate for any length of time out in the open water. On any given day, IRGCN small boats clustered around each platform, using the regular navy’s radios to relay commands back to IRGCN headquarters.
When the IRGCN began mine-laying operations, the platforms served as a staging base for these operations as well, with orders transmitted to the minelaying vessel via the platforms. One study conducted by the British Royal Navy on Iranian mining operations stressed the importance of these oil platforms: "For successful tactical mining it is necessary for the minelayer to be able to respond at short notice to intelligence and surveillance information giving data of the potential target’s likely movements... The minelayer would berth alongside an oil platform waiting for these target details. When alerted, it would sortie out and lay a number of mines... across an area of water that would span the assessed track of the target."
Despite CENTCOM’s fears of large-scale IRGCN "swarming" attacks against U.S. warships, the IRGCN attempted this on only two occasions. One was during Operation Praying Mantis, when Iran amassed nearly fifty small boats at Abu Musa Island. Despite this impressive congregation, during the day’s fighting the IRGCN attempted only two attacks using fewer than five boats; after U.S. aircraft sank one Boghammer, the boats remained safely ashore.
The other massing attack was more substantial. In early fall 1987, Iran amassed IRGCN small boats (with at least one Kaman-class patrol boat as a flagship) at Bushehr, perhaps intending to attack the Khafji oil field off the Saudi Arabian coast. When the operation commenced on the evening of October 2, the missile boat serving as the command ship became disoriented in the dark and veered off course. High seas prevented IRGCN small boats from following, and Iranian commanders could not get the multitude of small boats moving together in any cohesive formation. At least one small boat sank in the rough water.
Iran tried again on October 8. The IRGCN divided its force into two pincers. The main task force would descend from the north, while a smaller force would approach Saudi Arabia from the east and Farsi Island. That morning, the eastern pincer, consisting of a Boghammer and two smaller boats, departed Bushehr. After stopping at Farsi Island, at nightfall the small flotilla, with a total of thirteen men aboard, headed west toward Middle Shoals Buoy. To the north, the Iranians staged their main force, a larger flotilla of perhaps 20–30 small boats.
It is not clear if the Iranians realized that the United States had deployed the Mobile Sea Base. The commanding officer of the Hercules reported that his barge had been under surveillance by an IRGCN dhow, which had reported his position back to Farsi Island. The Iranians took along several surface-to-air missiles in anticipation of a U.S. military response. However, it is unlikely the IRGCN fully understood the size and capabilities of the U.S. Special Forces deployed on the Hercules.
The IRGCN displayed good operational security, avoiding radio communications that would compromise the operation. In fact, neither Saudi nor U.S. intelligence knew of the impending attack, despite deploying additional surveillance assets only a week earlier, based on concerns of just such an attack. The first indication of an Iranian operation occurred when U.S. Army Special Forces helicopters stumbled across the three IRGCN boats from Farsi, tied up alongside the Middle Shoals Buoy.
Although the IRGCN showed credible communications discipline, ultimately it proved tactically inept. For the most part, the boat crews consisted of untrained conscripts. When confronted by the U.S. helicopters, all three small boats were drawn alongside Middle Shoals Buoy, with their crews smoking and talking among themselves. Not a single weapon had been manned and no lookouts posted. As the helicopter closed to within forty feet, an Iranian leaped up to a heavy machine gun and opened fire on the U.S. helicopter, but lacking night vision goggles, he could only spray in the general direction of the chopper. Gasoline engines powered two of the boats, which immediately ignited when hit and incinerated their crews. The IRGCN crew on the Boghammer fought slightly better: It managed to launch two rockets (either SA-7s or RPGs) at the U.S. helicopters and managed to get up speed and maneuver to avoid incoming fire—a futile effort, it turned out, when a well-placed U.S. rocket sank the boat.
This brief skirmish effectively ended the IRGCN operations around Farsi Island. Instead, the Revolutionary Guard moved its small-boat operations further south, around Abu Musa Island. Occasionally, the IRGCN would test the barges’ defenses by approaching at high speed, then withdrawing at the first challenge. But with the exception of one small engagement between U.S. helicopters and IRGCN small boats in July 1988, in which one IRGCN boat was damaged and its crew inadvertently blinded by a laser designator, aggressive patrolling by U.S. small boats and helicopters ended Iranian operations around Farsi Island.
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.