Last time the US witnessed a 'Tanker War' in the Persian Gulf, it ended in tragedy
By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: June 14, 2019
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, through which up to a third of global oil exports pass each day. 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 initial start of the sea conflict appeared to be slow and marginal compared to the bloodshed on land: Iraq threatened to attack all ships going to or departing from Iranian ports in 1981, but it took until the following year for a Turkish oil tanker to become the first major vessel to be hit by Iraqi bombardment. Unable to immediately match Iraq's technical abilities to attack and sink ships, Iran reciprocated.
The United States later 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 hit 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% 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 the world economy reacted. After an initial shock in the early 1980s, trading had resumed and "even at the 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 the 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 sunk 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.
The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s exposed the complexities of trade ties and geopolitics in the region, but it is hardly comparable to today's confrontation between the United States and the Iranian regime.
While the Tanker War of the 1980s was only an extension of a 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.
The 1980s Tanker War may cast an eerie shadow on the current tensions in the same region, but its lessons are limited.