Iran Seizes British Tankers. Now What?
It appears I was wrong. After HMS Montrose read some Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fast attack boats the Riot Act last week, I theorized that tensions in the Gulf would die down and that the Montrose’s actions had proved Iran to be a paper tiger. Now, with Iran seizing two British tankers (one British flagged the other British owned), those predictions appear to be false. Why the Royal Navy escorted the British Heritage, but not these two is a question that would seem to have an unsatisfactory answer, if there is an answer at all.
Some are predictably trying to blame this on Trump and his decision to leave the nuclear deal with Iran, but this does not make sense. Britain is still trying to salvage the deal. It is of course possible that Tehran is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies, but such a decision would be monumentally stupid, not that Tehran is incapable of being stupid. The current Anglo-Iranian tensions arise out of Royal Marines seizing an Iranian tanker bound for Syria in violation of European sanctions on the Assad regime. This has been the Administration’s bet all along: when given the binary choice of Washington and Tehran, the Europeans will always choose Washington, regardless of their misgivings about Trump and his national security team.
The question, of course, is “now what?” There are rumblings that the Administration is trying to cobble together a coalition of allies and bring back escort convoys. The U.S. has escorted ships through the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz before, but now its different. In the 80s, the US escorted re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers, but that was during the middle of the Iran-Iraq War where both sides took to the sea in an order to break the World War I-like stalemate on land. The Reagan Administration was motivated in its decision in three main areas of interest:
- To keep the Soviets out. Kuwait was desperate, if the Americans refused, they would have no qualms about asking Moscow to do the job. This would also allow America to regain some good will in the region after the fall of the Shah.
- Kuwaiti oil was fueling the Iraqi war machine and with Iraq on the defense, Washington was determined to prevent an Iranian victory and the Iranian Revolution from spreading.
- Freedom of navigation.
Operation Earnest Will, as it became to be known, had its ups and downs. There were merchant vessels mined, Iranian missile attacks on Kuwaiti oil terminals, and shootouts between U.S. and Iranian forces were some of the downs, but by 1988 the system appeared to be working, that was until the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine on April 14.
The response to the mining of the Roberts has been cited by some as a way to handle current Iranian aggression in the Gulf. Operation Praying Mantis saw the U.S. Navy fight its largest surface engagement since World War II where it won a decisive victory, but Praying Mantis has also been a bit romanticized by people who now look to it for inspiration.
Praying Mantis was planned with the operational goal of destroying two Iranian oil platforms and sinking one Iranian frigate. The logic being you nearly sunk one of ours, we sink one of yours*. However what some fail to notice about Praying Mantis is that the Iranian Navy came out with an unexpected ferocity that day in response to the attacks on the platforms; one officer later describing it as a “one day war.” The U.S. Navy got its oil platforms and its frigate, the Sahand, but Iranian resolve also lead to a wider battle that included the sinking of multiple speedboats and the patrol boat Joshan. The Sahand’s sister ship Sabalan was also badly damaged.
Today the commentary on Praying Mantis is mixed. It is not true that we sunk their navy, we didn’t even sink half their navy, but it did succeed in putting Iran on the defensive and could be considered the beginning of the end of the Iran-Iraq War.
However, there is one part of Praying Mantis that is almost never discussed. In chapter 17 of his book Tanker War Lee Allen Zatarian makes the compelling case that the Pentagon covered up the fact that Iran had launched Silkworm missiles at U.S. warships, something the Reagan Administration had previously stated would lead to retaliatory strikes on Iranian territory. Not wanting to appear weak, but not wanting to commit itself to a larger and possibly endless and far deadlier mission, the Pentagon maintained that no Silkworms were fired despite U.S. pilots seeing the missiles being launched with their own eyes and inbedded journalistic accounts.
So, how do Earnest Will and Praying Mantis impact U.S. policy today? The U.K. and the U.S., as a British, ally would certainly be within our rights to send some IRGC boats to the bottom of the Persian Gulf, but is this wise? Maybe eventually, but not right now. Nobody has died and according to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, there were no British nationals aboard either of the two vessels. London is hamstrung by the fact that will soon have a new prime minister, but that shouldn’t hamper Washington’s convoy efforts.
Iran has now mined and seized ships. Our European friends are now part of this whether they want to be or not. It may come to the point where the U.S. has to send some Iranian ships to Davy Jones’s Locker, but before we jump to that, the Europeans should join the Administration in forming a multinational convoy system. This is not a prelude to war, as some will inevitably say, because they are caught up in the cult of the nuclear deal. Peacetime convoys are inherently defensive, they only engage in defensive actions when they feel threatened. That is why allied captains should be told not to seek out a surface engagement, i.e. don’t be the S.O.B that starts a war, but be given permission to counter Iranian aggression should the situation present itself, just as the Montrose did last week.
*The Samuel B. Roberts did not sink only as a result of world class damage control on the part of her crew. Some time after mining, researchers at Johns Hopkins would replicate the conditions of the mining and its aftermath and every time they ran the simulation, the ship sank within fourteen minutes with what Zatarian describes as “A Titanic-like sternward plunge, that, had it occurred on the real ship, would have taken most of the crew with it.”