After two suspected attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, one question was looming over discussions in Washington and other Western capitals Friday morning: If Iran was indeed behind the attacks, as the United States has claimed, how much more is it willing to risk?
Few expect that either Iran or the Trump administration would willingly provoke a full-blown conflict, but the chances of an accidental escalation have inched up since tankers were sabotaged near the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah last month.
As tensions mounted between the United States and Iran, European nations pressed for a calm response, fearing that any escalation could disrupt trade through the region’s vital Strait of Hormuz, which carries up to a third of global crude oil exports traded via ships. If the strait is blocked or trade there is disrupted by conflict, analysts predict oil prices would surge.
This isn’t just a hypothetical scenario.
In fact, the United States has witnessed a “Tanker War” in the same region before: The bloody Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 also played out in the Persian Gulf, and hundreds of ships owned by or associated with the two sides were targeted in the conflict. Other ships were attacked, too.
“The U.S. is no longer as dependent on the flow of oil from the Gulf as back then, but all of our allies are. So, for the functioning of the global economy, it’s still a vital waterway,” said Nicholas Burns, a Harvard University professor and former undersecretary of state under President George W. Bush.
Iran expert Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council in the 1980s, emphasized the straightforward nature of those attacks at the time, both in terms of motivation and execution. Neither Iran nor Iraq made any secret of the fact that they were waging a war of economic attrition, and they carried out their attacks with missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The initial start of the sea conflict appeared to be slow and marginal, compared with the bloodshed on land: Iraq threatened to attack all ships going to or departing from Iranian ports in the northern part of the Persian Gulf in 1981, but it took until the following year for a Turkish oil tanker to become the first major vessel to be hit by an Iraqi strike. Unable to immediately match Iraq’s technical abilities to attack and sink ships, Iran later reciprocated.
The United States became involved in the conflict in 1987, when it began escorting neutral Kuwait’s ships through the region to protect them from attacks. U.S. intervention ultimately helped end the conflict, after 37 U.S. crew members were killed when an Iraqi jet launched a missile attack against the USS Stark the same year.
But historical evidence from that period suggests that the most serious global repercussions had materialized long before U.S. involvement. Initially, in the early 1980s, “the Tanker War led to a 25 percent drop in commercial shipping and a sharp rise in the price of crude oil,” researchers with the University of Texas at Austin wrote. Prices also spiked because oil production itself was curbed after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.
One of the war’s paradoxes was that the more vessels were attacked, the more subdued was the reaction in the world economy. After an initial shock in the early 1980s, trading had resumed, and even at “its most intense point, the Tanker War failed to disrupt more than two percent of ships passing through the Persian Gulf,” wrote the University of Texas researchers.
Other countries increased their oil production in the following years to offset the impact of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. But another reason for the global oil market’s relative calm toward the end of the conflict was the realization that oil tankers are hard to sink.
On paper, the number of attacked vessels during the intensive phase of the conflict — from 1984 to 1987 — appeared significant enough to further disrupt global oil supplies.
Researchers later calculated that the attacks sank or disabled less than a quarter of all attacked petroleum tankers.
Still, the conflict had a high price: Unable to match the Iraqi arms capabilities at sea, Iran began to target the crews of commercial vessels themselves. Hundreds of civilians were killed in both Iraqi and Iranian attacks.
Analysts said that there were some parallels between the 1980s confrontation and today’s tensions.
“The basic concept of this whole situation of Iran’s oil being cut off and Iran responding in some ways covertly or semi-covertly to make others pay a price for that is very similar to what went on during the Iran-Iraq war,” Sick said. (Iran has disputed that it is behind the recent incidents.)
There are several important differences, though. While the Tanker War of the 1980s was an extension of an existing war, today’s tensions at sea could become the trigger for one. Weapons systems are now more destructive and precise, and more easily available to Iranian forces. And this time, the United States has been a central actor in the conflict from the beginning. “It’s not that this is a difference between two other parties in the Gulf and we are sort of bystanders,” Sick said.
Robert Reid, who covered the Middle East during the 1980s for the Associated Press, still described the situation today as “way cooler” than the environment in the Persian Gulf at the height of the Tanker War, when both sides were hitting ships flying various flags on a regular basis.
“It seems to me that so far it’s a long way from the situation in the mid-'80s,” he said.
But whether tensions escalate to that level also depends on how the Trump administration proceeds.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unequivocal assertion that Tehran was responsible also marks a departure from the Reagan administration’s cautious rhetoric during the Tanker War, Sick said, adding that the Trump administration’s eagerness to assign blame for Thursday’s attacks could fuel an escalation of the conflict.
Former undersecretary of state Burns added that the Trump administration had put itself into a more precarious position by withdrawing from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal last year — a decision U.S. allies in Europe opposed.
“We have fewer friends because we left without securing the agreement of our friends in doing so — that’s what is different between these two crises,” Burns said.