Iran and the Strait of Hormuz: lessons from an almost-forgotten tragedy

At a minimum, only crippling sanctions plus a serious threat of military force will have a chance of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions

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Adm. Habibollah Sayyari points at a map during a news conference in Tehran
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Henry Kopel
On 16 January 2012 12:25

With Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz – the central artery of global oil transport – in response to Western sanctions, the prospects for US- Iran naval confrontation are at their highest since 1988. In that year, the US and Iran fought a limited naval war over shipping rights in the Persian Gulf.

Those 1988 battles ended only after a series of attacks, counter-attacks, and a tragic mistake. The challenge and outcome of those events offer insights into Iran’s likely conduct today.

Back then, the Iran-Iraq war was in its eighth year. Iraq was attacking Iranian oil exports. In response, Iran, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, launched attacks on oil tankers from Kuwait and other Gulf states allied with Iraq.

Faced with such threats, Kuwait asked the American government to re-flag its oil tankers under the US flag. Such a move would commit the US Navy to protecting Kuwait’s tanker fleet against Iranian attacks.

With the Soviet Union also offering to re-flag Kuwait’s fleet, President Reagan preemptively accepted the invitation to safeguard Kuwaiti tankers.

As described in Kenneth Pollack’s masterful history of US- Iran relations, “The Persian Puzzle,” this move put the US and Iran on a direct collision course. Rather than back down, the Iranians initially responded with aggression and bluster.

Iran commenced laying mines in the Gulf’s shipping channels, and escalated attacks on Gulf shipping. In Teheran, the Revolutionary Guards hung a banner from their headquarters declaring, “The Persian Gulf will be the graveyard of the United States.”

After a US Navy frigate struck an Iranian mine, the US bombed the offshore oil platforms that Iran had used as bases for attacking Gulf shipping. Again the Iranians responded with aggression, unleashing its Navy and Air Force against US ships in the Gulf.

Within a few days, superior US weaponry devastated the small Iranian air-naval attack force, sinking several small attack boats, a missile boat, one frigate, and an F-4 bomber jet, and crippling another Iranian frigate.

Even though Iran’s armies were, at the same time, suffering massive defeats in the desert before a wave of Iraqi counter-attacks, Iran still refused to back down before the US Navy. In July of 1988, a further round of naval skirmishing brought about a terrible civilian tragedy.

After taking fire from Iranian naval craft, two oil tankers issued distress signals. US naval helicopters responded, and an Iranian boat fired on them. Just as US ships prepared a counter-attack, an Iranian passenger jet – Iran Air flight 655 – approached directly overhead.

Mistaking the passenger plane for an F-14 fighter jet, the USS. Vincennes fired two missiles, bringing down the plane. All 290 of the passengers and crew of Iran Air 655 were killed.

Pollack’s account of the wildly divergent assessments of this tragedy by Iranian and American leaders opens a window into the Iranian regime’s mindset. For America, the shooting of Iran Air 655 was a terrible mistake, for which the US eventually agreed to pay $61.8 million in compensation.

But to the Iranian regime, the shooting was no mistake – rather, it was uniformly viewed as a deliberate act, intended to show that America “was willing to do anything – including killing Iranian civilians – to bring down the Islamic republic.”

According to Pollack, the shoot-down of Iran Air 655 was the third of three events that fueled increased domestic opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini and broke the will of the Iranian regime, the other two being Iran’s battlefield losses to the Iraqis, and the show of overwhelming US naval force in the Gulf. Together, these led Iran to end its long war with Iraq, and to abandon its attacks on Gulf shipping.

What does this tell us about Iran’s likely conduct today, in its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons?

First, as the world already has seen, the Iranian regime’s initial reaction to US and western pressure is aggression and bluster. Expect a lot of push-back.

Second, the Iranian regime interprets its adversaries’ motives and conduct through a much more paranoid and conspiratorial lens than that of western countries. Do not expect gestures of good faith, or “engagement,” to elicit trust and goodwill.

Third, greater western pressure on the Iranian regime does not necessarily push the Iranian people to rally round its leaders. If the regime is made to appear weak or incompetent, it may well face greater internal opposition.

And fourth, when and only when the Iranian regime perceives the west as willing to deploy overwhelming force and take drastic measures – and especially if the regime’s competence is placed into question in the domestic sphere – then it might back down.

Accordingly, as is already evident, Iran will not abandon its nuclear weapons programme if faced with weak or “leaky” economic sanctions. Nor will it respond well to efforts of appeasement and conciliatory talk. And even strong sanctions will, at least initially, elicit only aggression and threats.

At a minimum, only crippling sanctions plus a serious threat of military force will have a chance of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

And even that may well be insufficient. Very possibly, only a military strike will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Henry Kopel is an attorney with the US Department of Justice in Connecticut. The views here are his own, and do not reflect the views of the Justice Department

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