Military


Operation Earnest Will

Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980, launching a war that would last eight years. By 1982, more than 100,000 people had died. The war was costing each side $1 billion a month and devastated both countries' oil industries. In the so-called "tanker war", both belligerents launched attacks on neutral merchant vessels transiting the Gulf, prompting several Gulf states to seek protection from foreign navies.

In March 1984, Iraq initiated sustained naval operations in its self-declared 1,126-kilometer maritime exclusion zone, extending from the mouth of the Shatt al Arab to Iran's port of Bushehr. In 1981 Baghdad had attacked Iranian ports and oil complexes as well as neutral tankers and ships sailing to and from Iran; in 1984 Iraq expanded the so-called "tanker war" by using French Super-Etendard combat aircraft armed with Exocet missiles. Neutral merchant ships became favorite targets, and the long-range Super-Etendards flew sorties farther south. Seventy-one merchant ships were attacked in 1984 alone, compared with forty-eight in the first three years of the war. Iraq's motives in increasing the tempo included a desire to break the stalemate, presumably by cutting off Iran's oil exports and by thus forcing Tehran to the negotiating table. Repeated Iraqi efforts failed to put Iran's main oil exporting terminal at Kharg Island out of commission, however.

Iran retaliated by attacking first a Kuwaiti oil tanker near Bahrain on May 13 and then a Saudi tanker in Saudi waters five days later, making it clear that if Iraq continued to interfere with Iran's shipping, no Gulf state would be safe. These sustained attacks cut Iranian oil exports in half, reduced shipping in the Gulf by 25 percent, led Lloyd's of London to increase its insurance rates on tankers, and slowed Gulf oil supplies to the rest of the world; moreover, the Saudi decision in 1984 to shoot down an Iranian Phantom jet intruding in Saudi territorial waters played an important role in ending both belligerents' attempts to internationalize the tanker war. Iraq and Iran accepted a 1984 UN-sponsored moratorium on the shelling of civilian targets, and Tehran later proposed an extension of the moratorium to include Gulf shipping, a proposal the Iraqis rejected unless it were to included their own Gulf ports.

Iraq began ignoring the moratorium soon after it went into effect and stepped up its air raids on tankers serving Iran and Iranian oil-exporting facilities in 1986 and 1987, attacking even vessels that belonged to the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Iran responded by escalating its attacks on shipping serving Arab ports in the Gulf.

As Kuwaiti vessels made up a large portion of the targets in these retaliatory raids, on 1 November 1986, Kuwait, a nonbelligerent, announced it would seek international protection for its ships. The Soviet Union responded first, agreeing to charter several Soviet tankers to Kuwait in early 1987. Washington, which has been approached first by Kuwait and which had postponed its decision, eventually followed Moscow's lead. On 7 March 1987, the United States offered to reflag 11 Kuwaiti tankers and provide U.S. Navy protection. Kuwait accepted.

On 17 May 1987, an Iraqi attack aircraft fired two Exocet missiles, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21 others aboard USS Stark (FFG 31). Iraq apologized, claiming "pilot error."

Ironically, Washington used the Stark incident to blame Iran for escalating the war and sent its own ships to the Gulf to escort eleven Kuwaiti tankers that were "reflagged" with the American flag and had American crews. Iran refrained from attacking the United States naval force directly, but it used various forms of harassment, including mines, hit-and-run attacks by small patrol boats, and periodic stop-and-search operations. On several occasions, Tehran fired its Chinese-made Silkworm missiles on Kuwait from Al Faw Peninsula. When Iranian forces hit the reflagged tanker Sea Isle City in October 1987, Washington retaliated by destroying an oil platform in the Rostam field and by using the United States Navy's Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) commandos to blow up a second one nearby.

Within a few weeks of the Stark incident, Iraq resumed its raids on tankers but moved its attacks farther south, near the Strait of Hormuz. Washington played a central role in framing UN Security Council Resolution 598 on the Gulf war, passed unanimously on July 20; Western attempts to isolate Iran were frustrated, however, when Tehran rejected the resolution because it did not meet its requirement that Iraq should be punished for initiating the conflict.

American units had already found a dozen mines in Persian Gulf shipping lanes when the Navy began escorting re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers during Operation EARNEST WILL in July 1987. During the very first escort mission, a mine ripped into the re-flagged supertanker Bridgeton. That first month, three tankers hit mines and minesweeping operations by Navy helicopters began. Later that summer, U.S. forces captured the Iranian minelayer Iran Ajr while it was deploying mines in international shipping lanes and U.S. helicopters repelled an attack by Iranian speedboats.

In October 1987, U.S. surface forces destroyed an armed Iranian oil complex in retaliation for an Iranian missile attack on a U.S.-flagged tanker. On 19 October 1987, an attack was launched by four US guided-missile destroyers, the Young, Hoel, Kidd and Leftwich, against the Iranian oil platforms Result and Reshadat, owned and operated by the National Iranian Oil Company in the Persian Gulf. The Resalat and Reshadat platforms are located in the continental shelf and exclusive economic zone of the Islamic Republic. They form part of a larger series of oil installations involving more than 100 producing wells and platforms essential to the Iranian commercial oil industry. On 19 October 1987, a radio warning was issued by the US naval forces of the attack, with the information to personnel on the platform that firing would begin in 20 minutes. At 1400 hours, the US vessels began their attack using 5-inch guns, the largest naval artillery in the Persian Gulf at the time. The attack lasted for 90 minutes, and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition were used. As a result of the attack, one platform was completely obliterated, and the other was 90 per cent destroyed. This resulted in the complete stoppage of oil production from the underlying oilfields. In statements made after the incident, the United States justified the attack as a "lawful exercise of the right of self-defense", and as a "measured response'' to an alleged Iranian attack against the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City said to have been launched from the Fao Peninsula along the northern stretches of the Persian Gulf.

In early 1988, the Gulf was a crowded theater of operations. At least ten Western navies and eight regional navies were patrolling the area, the site of weekly incidents in which merchant vessels were crippled. The Arab Ship Repair Yard in Bahrain and its counterpart in Dubayy, United Arab Emirates (UAE), were unable to keep up with the repairs needed by the ships damaged in these attacks.

It was during these operations that USS Vincennes (CG 49) shot down an Iranian commercial Airbus A300B2-202 airliner [Iran Air Flight 655] on 03 July 1988 after mistaking it for an Iranian F-14. The total of 290 dead civilian passengers, included 66 children. On 22 February 1996 the United States agreed to pay Iran $61.8 million in compensation ($300,000 per wage earning victim, $150,000 per non wage earner) for the 248 Iranians killed in the shootdown.

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