History offers lessons in Gulf showdown between US and Iran

Iran lost heavily in 1980s naval battle with US but has since focused on ‘asymmetrical war’

FILE - This Sept. 21, 1987 file photo shows mines aboard the Iranian ship Iran Ajr being inspected by a boarding party from the USS Lasalle in the Persian Gulf. Mysterious attacks on oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz show how susceptible one of the world's crucial chokepoints for global energy supplies remains, 30 years after the U.S. Navy and Iran found themselves entangled a similarly shadowy conflict. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)
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The last time US and Iranian troops fought each other near the Strait of Hormuz, it was during the so-called Tanker War in the 1980s and the result was a lop-sided victory for the Americans. But if fresh hostilities break out in the Arabian Gulf, the United States will face a more diversified Iranian seaborne force that could pose a menace to the world’s most powerful navy, while challenging access to this crucial global shipping choke point.

In 1987, the US bolstered its forces in the Gulf to provide escorts for friendly tankers that were being targeted by Iran to punish Arab states for their support for Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. After an Iranian mine struck the USS Samuel B Roberts in 1988, the US launched operation Praying Mantis.

During the day-long April battle, Iran lost several ships, including a frigate, and at least 60 of its troops were killed. US casualties amounted to two personnel whose helicopter had apparently crashed.

The conflict had fizzled out by August that year, with some analysts arguing that the US posture under Ronald Reagan’s presidency may have contributed to Iran ceasing hostilities.

A similar conflict may be brewing today, with Iran believed to have targeted several ships in the strait over the past month, and the US sending reinforcements to the region. While American naval dominance is still unquestionable, since the 1980s Iran has developed capabilities of its own.

Writing in the US international affairs journal the National Interest last month, historian Mark Episkopos said past encounters in the 1980s went in line with expectations, given US naval superiority. Today, Iran's warships remain weak and too few to seriously challenge the US. Its one advanced frigate cannot "compensate for what is otherwise an overwhelming Iranian deficit in surface military vessels".

Iran’s navy could, however, “challenge US power in other, more asymmetric ways”. Speedboats and minelayers in particular could be used to ambush US forces or hinder access to certain sectors and close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 per cent of global oil passes.

Naval mines were especially damaging to tankers in the 1980s, while limpet mines appear to have been used against several tankers in the Gulf of Oman since last month.

Iran’s 34 torpedo-equipped submarines, some supplied by North Korea, give it a “near-undetectable mine-laying capability”, which “makes them ideal candidates for patrol and ambush operations against hostile surface vessels,” Mr Episkopos said.

But the risk of escalating cat-and-mouse clashes into a global conflict with a superpower “comes with its own set of stark risks for Iran”, Mr Episkopos said.

One way in which Tehran tries to impose a cost on its adversaries without direct conflict is by its reliance on proxy forces, an important tool in its asymmetrical warfare toolbox. US forces could be attacked outside the main theatre of operations, as shown by the shooting down of a US Reaper drone over Yemen on June 6.

Washington said the drone was hit by a surface-to-air missile fired by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. The downing of the drone was followed by a similar attempt to destroy an American surveillance aircraft over the Gulf of Oman.

While Iran may possess the ability to surprise because of its proxies, it is important not to overestimate Iranian capabilities, given US control of the skies and the protective measures it has taken to counteract the threat from Iran’s nimble arsenal.

"There is little doubt who will be the biggest loser if open hostilities break out," Lebanese military analyst Nizar Abdel Kader told The National from Beirut. "Iran is avoiding open warfare for a reason. It is the same reason the more assertive members of the US administration believe they can keep undermining Iran's prestige at relatively little cost."