Last week, Britain impounded an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar, claiming that the vessel was carrying oil to Syria in violation of the European Union’s sanctions. A senior adviser to the Iranian government responded that if Britain failed to release the vessel, Iran would be forced to seize a British tanker. Coming on the heels of Iran shooting down an American drone that had allegedly violated its airspace and US President Donald Trump’s subsequent revelations about his administration’s unimplemented plans for retaliation, the latest incident underscores the risks that lurk in the mounting confrontation between the United States and Iran.
India has, so far, focused on coping with American sanctions on importing oil from Iran. The Narendra Modi government should, however, look ahead at potential challenges, especially if the stand-off escalates in the Persian Gulf and threatens larger flows of oil. At a time when the Indian economy is slowing down, this could have significant consequences. To understand the various situations that could unfold, we should look back at the “tanker war” in the 1980s – a conflict that few seem to recall today.
The “tanker war” began as the naval dimension of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). During the war, both sides sought to protect their oil production and distribution while disrupting the other’s. In a bid to undermine Iran’s oil economy, Iraq attacked oil tankers in the Persian Gulf – attacks that went up significantly from 1984 after the Iraqis acquired French Exocet missiles. The Iranians responded in kind, but initially with restraint. For one thing, Iran was rather more dependent on the sea for its oil exports than Iraq. A major disruption of the maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf would hurt Iran much more. A corollary to this was that Iran did not have suitable targets for retaliating against Iraqi attacks on its vessels.
As Iraq stepped up its strikes, Iran responded by attacking neutral shipping. These attacks began in April 1984 with the shelling of an Indian freighter. Iran’s main targets were the oil tankers of Iraq’s key allies: Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s actions stoked international concerns about the possible closure of the Strait of Hormuz – a vital passage for oil exports from the Arab states. From late 1986, the attacks on Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian vessels grew more potent owing to Iran’s acquisition of the Silkworm anti-ship missile. In January 1987, Kuwait, with the backing of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, formally requested the United States for assistance in escorting its oil tankers through the Persian Gulf.
At this time, the United States was keen to contain the fall-out of the Iran-Contra affair, which stemmed from the Reagan administration’s furtive arms sales to Iran. In the wake of these revelations, the United States was eager to reassure the Gulf states about its regional policy. To demonstrate its credibility, the Reagan administration accepted the request for re-flagging Kuwaiti vessels, thereby forcing the Iranians to risk attacking the Stars and Stripes. This policy, however, was presented as a response to a major threat from Iran. As US Secretary of State George Shultz said in June 1987, “only the U.S. could defeat Iran’s efforts to close down navigation in the Persian Gulf and choke off flow of oil through that critical waterway”.
The United States undertook a major naval build-up in the region with 50 warships and 170 aircraft. The French and the British had another 23 ships in the area. By contrast, the Iranians had just four frigates, a corvette and 10 missile boats. The Iranian navy’s air assets had dwindled to 21 planes. The US Navy’s rules of engagement were framed as proportional response to an actual or imminent attack. The Americans did not think much about the form such an attack could take, assuming that their massive naval presence would dissuade the Iranians from any confrontation. So, when Iran responded by laying some 60 mines in key locations in the Gulf, the US Navy was surprised.
Soon, the two sides were embroiled in a string of incidents. American actions aimed at the Iranian navy and its offshore guerrilla bases quickly escalated to attacks on Iranian oil platforms. Although President Ronald Reagan publicly stated that the United States was not going to war with Iran, the situation remained on the edge. On 14 April 1988, USS Samuel B. Roberts (a missile frigate) struck a mine sown by Iran and was badly damaged. Four days later, Washington responded with a massive strike on major Iranian oil platforms that dealt a crippling blow to Iran’s meagre naval assets. The United States also announced the expansion of its reflagging policy to assist all ships in the Gulf.
These developments alongside other reverses in the land war impelled Iran to agree to a ceasefire in July 1988. But there was a tragic coda to the “tanker war”. On 3 July, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airbus, thinking it to be a fighter jet. All 290 civilians on board were killed. The Iranians believed this was a deliberate attack, but the Americans insisted it was a mistake.
While human errors were at play, the action was also the outcome of the expansion of the American policy, which put considerable pressure on the US Navy. In his excellent account of the Iran-Iraq war, French historian Pierre Razoux claims that the Iranians may have struck back by encouraging Libya to target the Pan Am flight that exploded over Lockerbie in December 1988. The evidence for this is thin, but it reminds us of the fall-out of the “tanker war”.
Thirty years on, Iran has a more sophisticated suite of asymmetric capabilities that it can deploy against its adversaries. Faced with a serious attempt to squeeze its economic or strategic assets, the Iranians will respond in ways that could jeopardise maritime traffic in the Gulf—even if it hurts them more. Given India’s equities in the region, the Modi government should now attempt to stave off such a possibility rather than scrambling to react later.
The author is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India. Views are personal.