Another Tanker War on the Horizon?


In late spring of 1987, as the Iran-Iraq conflict raged, tensions were on the rise between Iran and the United States. In December of 1986, as the conflict continued through its Tanker War phase, the Kuwaiti government formally requested that the United States protect Kuwaiti oil tankers against Iranian attacks. By US law, US warships could not escort civilian vessels registered under a foreign flag. The solution to this dilemma was both simple, and ingenious. The Kuwaiti ships were re-registered, and reflagged, legally becoming US vessels. A military operation to protect Kuwaiti tankers was planned, and formally named Operation Earnest Will. It ended up being the largest naval convoy operation since World War II, officially running from 24 July, 1987 until 26 September, 1988.

During the time period, Iranian forces attempted to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf using mines, and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) naval forces. The US Navy launched a number of attacks against Iranian oil platforms, and naval units in retaliation for actual, or planned attacks against oil tankers. On 15 October, 1987 a Kuwaiti tanker was struck by a Iranian Silkworm missile while at anchor off the coast of Kuwait. Three days later, US forces launched Operation Nimble Archer, attacking Iranian oil platforms that were actually serving as bases for attacks against shipping. In April, 1988 the frigate USS Samuel B Roberts struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf. The ship was saved, and four days later the US Navy launched Operation Preying Mantis in retaliation for Iran’s mining of the Persian Gulf. By the end of the operation, half of Iran’s operational naval fleet had been either sunk, or severely damaged.

Considering the events of the past few days, specifically the attempted sabotage of four oil tankers off of the UAE, a look back at Earnest Will, and the Tanker War is useful. If Iran is going to resist US pressure, the world needs to be prepared for more attacks on oil tankers by Iran and its proxies in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Red Sea. Further attacks will prompt US retaliation, and perhaps a convoy operation similar to Earnest Will.

Quite frankly, the situation in the Persian Gulf at present bears a bit more than a striking resemblance to July, 1987. Iran’s military is no more capable now than it was thirty-two years ago. If anything, it is in worse material condition today. If hostilities break out in the Gulf, Iran will be forced to rely on IRGC naval units, mines, and perhaps a handful of anti-ship missiles as its primary offensive weapons.

As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. We could very well be seeing a rhyme of sorts taking shape in the Persian Gulf right now. The present crisis may not transform into a repeat of the US-Iran naval standoffs and conflicts of the late 1980s, however, it will at least bear a striking resemblance to them.

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