Dickey: Will the U.S. and Iran Start a War at Sea?

If there's a war between the United States and Iran, it may well start on the water. After all, it's happened before. Twenty years ago American ships were under fire in the Persian Gulf, and mines laid by the mullahs' men nearly sank a U.S. guided missile cruiser. In April 1988 the American and Iranian navies fought the biggest air-sea battle waged since World War II. By the time it was over, carrier-based U.S. attack planes had sunk the frigate Sahand and disabled the frigate Sabalan, the pride of the Iranian navy.

That's why the comment by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday about the brief deployment of a second U.S. aircraft carrier to the gulf was so terse and so telling. "I don't see it as an escalation," Gates said. "I think it could be seen, though, as a reminder."

Gates would know. He was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency back in 1988. He has seen firsthand the treacherous complexities, the bluff and the bloodshed, of war with Iran, whether fought in the shadows or on the high seas. And anyone who was out in the gulf at the time, as I was, can see similarities between then and now. But looking back at the last undeclared war with Iran, who is reminded of what, precisely? The challenge is to draw the right lessons.

For those who've forgotten those naval operations with computer-generated names like Earnest Will, Nimble Archer and Praying Mantis (and I suspect most people in the United States don't remember them at all), the best history I've read is "Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf, 1987-1988," by Harold Lee Wise, which came out last year from the U.S. Naval Institute Press. It's not only thoroughly researched, it reads like a Tom Clancy thriller—or, rather, better. And Wise too is worried about what's happening now.

As he sees it, any war with Iran today is going to involve a major naval component. Forty percent of the world's oil supply passes through the gulf on vulnerable tankers, he points out, and that would come under direct threat.

Wise, in a paper he sent me this week, argues there are three basic lessons to be gleaned from the fight 20 years ago:

1. Even if outgunned, Iran will not back down from a fight.
In 1988 the Iranians surprised American intelligence officers with their "aggressiveness and boldness," says Wise. In one of the shootouts during the battle in April 1988 an Iranian guided missile patrol boat confronted three U.S. warships. "Despite radio warnings that the Americans intended to sink it, the patrol boat captain did not surrender and instead attacked," says Wise. "Later in the battle two Iranian frigates left the safety of port to join the fight against what they surely knew were overwhelming odds."

2. Low-tech weapons are effective in naval conflict.
"Modern technology remains weak at detecting undersea mines," says Wise. But mines are not the only problem. In the 1980s, as now, the Iranians used "swarming" tactics against larger merchant and naval vessels, sending relatively small boats at high speeds buzzing around and near the U.S. ships. The same thing happened in January this year, and possibly—the boats were never identified—just last week around a merchant ship on contract to the U.S. Navy.

3. Fight fire with fire.
In 1988 the most effective way to combat the Iranians turned out to be with weapons similar in scale to their own. Special Operations Forces using stealth helicopters from bases built on huge oil barges in the northern gulf effectively shut down Iranian mine-laying activity there.

By contrast, the billion-dollar guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, gunning for Iranians near the Strait of Hormuz, fought a battle against a swarm of Iranian gunboats in July 1988 that was inconclusive.

What was memorable about that day was that in the heat of the moment the Vincennes mistook a civilian airliner overhead for an Iranian warplane and shot it down, killing all 290 people aboard.

Of course, much has changed in two decades, but the military situation in the gulf that was confusing and dangerous in 1988 is in fact much more complicated and dangerous now.

Back then the United States was looking for a way to back Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran—without quite saying so. He was a thug, but the Iranians had humiliated the Reagan administration by training the Hizbullah shock troops that forced the United States out of Lebanon in 1984 and by revealing the scandalous arms-for-hostages deals the Reagan administration cut in 1986. So by 1987 the CIA (with Gates effectively running the show) started sharing satellite intelligence with Saddam that allowed him to fight more effectively against Iran.

By coincidence according to Wise's history, by conspiracy according to the Iranians, the big naval battle the United States launched against Iran's little fleet in April 1988 happened at exactly the same time that Saddam launched a massive offensive to retake the strategic Faw Peninsula. Thanks to his American-supplied intelligence and his huge arsenal of chemical weapons, he succeeded. Months later, after eight years of war, Iran admitted defeat.

Today Saddam is no longer a problem. But Iraq is a huge one. The government the Americans helped install there is very close to the Iranians. So are the militias now killing American soldiers in Iraq almost every day. A safe bet about this dangerous situation is that any major confrontation with Iran on land or at sea will make life even more hellish for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Today Iran is on its way to becoming a nuclear power. Whether it builds weapons, as the United States claims it will do, or keeps its technology purely peaceful, as it insists it intends, its nuclear knowledge changes all strategic calculations in the region.

But today the most volatile danger zone remains at sea, because today the U.S. Navy and American ships face threats that overlap with those Iran might pose. Twenty years ago there was no Al Qaeda. Now there is. And while its most devastating attacks have been from the air, it also developed techniques for blowing up ships at sea. In October 2000 Al Qaeda hit the USS Cole in the Yemeni harbor of Aden, killing 17 sailors; in October 2002 it hit the French oil tanker Limburg, killing one crew member, injuring a dozen more and doing tens of millions of dollars worth of damage. That the mastermind of those two attacks, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was caught in late 2002 and is now in U.S. custody at Guantánamo is cause for some relief, but hardly complacency.

To protect against these threats, what are called "embarked security teams" of about a dozen U.S. military personnel are now put on American-flag merchant ships working with the 5th Fleet from the Suez Canal to Pakistan and from Kuwait to the southern border of Kenya. But there are tens of thousands of little boats in those waters. Are they Al Qaeda? Are they Iranian Revoluionary Guards? Or just fishermen and merchants? To warn them away the American security teams try radio contact, loudspeakers, a flare, then .50 caliber rounds fired into the water in front of the boats or beside them. In March one of those bullets hit an Egyptian peasant on the Suez Canal and killed him.

"The U.S. Navy has had 20 sailors lose their lives because of small boat attacks," says Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokesperson for the 5th Fleet operating out of Bahrain. That number includes those killed on the Cole and another three killed in an attack on Iraqi oil platforms in the northern gulf. "We train our commanding officers and crews to be ready … That includes being aware of surroundings and putting together information in unique situations."

But as tensions mount, so does the potential for tragic mistakes, including accidental escalation and widening war. This isn't a prediction, of course. Just a reminder.

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