Twenty-seven years ago this week, the United States launched Operation Praying Mantis in the Persian Gulf, attacking numerous Iranian targets in retaliation for Tehran’s use of sea mines during the Iran-Iraq war. The guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts had just been rocked by submerged Iranian explosives a few days earlier, on April 14, 1988, injuring 10 sailors and ripping a 15-foot-wide hole in the ship’s hull.
The response was fierce. Four days later, the Navy attacked two oil platforms used by Iran to coordinate attacks on merchant ships during the Iran-Iraq war, which was nearing an end after more than seven years. By the battle’s end, the United States had destroyed the sea bases as well as an Iranian frigate, patrol boat and other ships. Half of the Iranian navy was wiped out, Navy admirals assessed. Two Marines died in a helicopter crash that day.
The battle is relevant now as both the U.S. and Iranian navies send ships to the waters around Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been bombing rebel targets since March after the fall of the government in Sanaa. As in the 1980s, U.S. officials say they want to keep shipping lanes in the region open to travel, but tensions between Iran and the United States continue to simmer.
The United States now has nine combat ships in the region, counting the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided-missile destroyer USS Normandy, which have made it through the Strait of Hormuz from the Persian Gulf and are steaming through the Arabian Sea toward Yemen, Navy officials said. Iran, meanwhile, has sent naval vessels to Bab al-Mandab strait, the narrow stretch of water between Yemen and Djibouti that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Tehran is accused of sending weapons to the rebels in Yemen, but Iranian officials have denied it.
The list of altercations and near-misses between the Iranian and U.S. navies is lengthy. Here are several other examples:
The shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655
Just months after Operation Praying Mantis, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner carrying 290 civilians on July 3, 1988. Navy officials said at the time that they thought the plane was an Iranian F-14 fighter jet about to attack the cruiser, but subsequent investigations raised questions about why the Navy did not realize that the airliner was broadcasting over civilian frequencies.
The incident has perpetuated distrust on Tehran’s side of U.S. intentions. Iran, meanwhile, has been accused by the United States of a slew of offenses, such as sending arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan that targeted U.S. troops and providing hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Iran plane warns U.S. destroyer
Late last year, an Iranian patrol aircraft warned the destroyer USS Gridley to leave an area the Iranian military was using for a military exercise. It was one in a series of warnings issued to American vessels that week, as the Aviationist blog noted at the time. Iranian aircraft frequently pass by other countries’ vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, which is just south of Iran.
Iranian plane flies within 50 yards of Navy helicopter
An Iranian observation plane flew within 50 yards of an MH-60R Navy helicopter flying from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in March, CNN reported last month. The move surprised U.S. commanders at the time because Iran had acted in a professional manner in recent months, a U.S. military official told the news network.
Crew on the Navy helicopter took photographs of the incident, but the Defense Department has declined to release them.
Coast Guard cutter fires warning shot in Persian Gulf
In August, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Monomoy fired a warning shot at a wooden Iranian fishing vessel after its crew leveled a machine gun at a smaller Coast Guard craft sent to get a closer look at the boat, U.S. officials said. The situation deescalated afterward, but an Iranian official later mocked the Americans involved.
Adm. Ali Fadavi, the naval chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, then added that “Americans feared and felt danger from a fishing dhow” and “should be fearful” whenever they are in the Persian Gulf, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Iranian speedboats draw U.S. concern
In late 2007 and early 2008, a series of incidents in which Iranian speedboats, most of them armed, harassed U.S. Navy ships drew concern. In one of them, a voice could be heard conveying a threat: “I am coming to you. You will explode in a few minutes.”
As Navy Times later explored, the threat may have come from a heckler, rather than an Iranian official. But warning shots were fired by the USS Whidbey Island in December 2007 at one patrol boat, and the USS Carr blasted a warning whistle at others just three days later, Navy officials said.
Operation Nimble Archer
Operation Praying Mantis wasn’t the only time the U.S. Navy attacked Iranian targets during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. On Oct. 19, 1987, U.S. destroyers shelled two oil platforms during Operation Nimble Archer after an Iranian missile struck a Kuwaiti oil tanker three days earlier that had been part of a U.S. mission to escort civilian ships during a time of conflict.
As a history by military journalist Brad Peniston notes, four Navy destroyers — the USS Hoel, the USS John Young, the USS Kidd and the USS Leftwich — pummeled the structures and eventually set them ablaze.