Due to the large volume of conflicts occurring during this time period, the section on the "Tanker War" between Iran and Iraq is divided into two parts. In this section, we describe the era in three maps of approximately 100 conflicts a piece: One for 1980-1984, one for 1985-1986, and one for 1987-1989. In the following section, we will examine the statistics of the Tanker War and present the raq data. The narrative packets for each of the three maps can be downloaded by clicking on the link below. -Ed.
The “Tanker War” in the Persian Gulf emerged in 1984 as an outgrowth of the stalemated Iran-Iraq War (1980-1984). Although the Tanker War technically began in May 1981 with the creation of an Iraqi military exclusion zone north of the 29th Parallel, it did not begin to attract significant international attention until March 1984 when the sheer volume of attacks showed the potential to seriously affect the flow of oil and international shipping. For Iraq, the purpose of these attacks was two-fold: First, to damage Iran’s ability to export the oil needed to run its already beleaguered economy, and second, to bring third parties into the conflict to pressure Iran for a ceasefire. For Iran, however, the effort was more defensive: By attacking merchant ships heading to Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi ports, mining Gulf shipping routes, and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, it hoped to stem the flow of Western arms to Iraq and dissuade Western navies from taking a more prominent role in the Gulf region. 1
The plan ultimately backfired, however, as the United States was drawn deeper into the region to protect its interests and the international trade of petroleum. When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980, it uncovered the inherent instability of the balance between Iran and the Gulf States which was necessary for the maintenance of regional security. As both sides were stalemated in trench-based warfare reminiscent of the First World War, they attempted to undermine each others’ economies by launching attacks on neutral shipping in the Gulf. By 1984, Iraq was making regular bombing raids to the Iranian oil facilities on Karg, and later Siri and Larak Islands, while Iran routinely attacked tankers traveling to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The intensity of
this Tanker War, coupled with the Iranian threat to close the Strait
convinced the United
States to create a permanent
presence in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
The Regan Administration expanded Carter's Rapid Joint Defense Force (RJDF) to create Central Command (CENTCOM)
in 1983,2 began escorting Kuwaiti tankers in 1986 and 1987. When the guided missile frigate, USS Samuel Roberts was severely damaged by an Iranian mine in April, 1988, the United States responded by launching Operation Praying Mantis, in which the US Navy succeeded in destroying the Iranian oil platforms at Siri and Sassan, and the Iranian frigate Sablan and a number of Iranian missile boats. Although 290 civilians tragically died when Iran Air Flight 655 was mistakenly shot down by the USS Vincennes, the operation nevertheless convinced Iran of America's resolve to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf, and cemented the United States' role as the predominant naval force in the region.3
Image Description: The Iranian frigate IS SAHAND (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing II from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) in retaliation for the mining of the guided missile frigate USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (FFG-58). The ship was hit by three Harpoon missiles plus cluster bombs. Source: US Navy.
1 “Iran-Iraq War.” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/iran-iraq.htm. (April 20, 2009).
2 Hines, Jay E. “From Desert One to Southern Watch: The Evolution of U.S. Central Command.” JFQ Forum (Spring 2000).