Tensions With Iran Unlikely To Lead To Repeat Of 'Tanker War'

Jun 20, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 8:45 am
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In the summer of 1987 in the Persian Gulf, Iranian mines were blowing up oil tankers because of a war that Iran was fighting with Iraq. So President Reagan put U.S. flags on 11 oil tankers that were not American tankers to protect them as they sailed through the Gulf.


RONALD REAGAN: If we fail to do so simply because these ships previously flew the flag of another country, Kuwait, we would abdicate our role as a naval power.

KING: This was called the Tanker War. And it's not likely to happen again, despite the recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf that the U.S. blames on Iran.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Not only did foreign oil tankers don American flags three decades ago; they also got new names.


ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: The tanker Gas Prince sailed safely through the Persian Gulf today. The tanker, flying an American flag, passed through the Strait of Hormuz with its U.S. Navy escorts.

WELNA: That's All Things Considered host Robert Siegel in August 1987, teeing up a report by Deb Amos from the Persian Gulf.


DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The Iranians have announced that they will begin what's called Operation Martyrdom, naval maneuvers, a show of force by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

WELNA: The U.S. is, once again, blaming those guards for attacking foreign tankers. But no ships are being reflagged with the Stars and Stripes. In an interview this week with Time magazine, President Trump described those recent attacks as, quote, "very minor." At a breakfast with reporters, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Paul Selva, was asked about Trump's characterization of those attacks.


PAUL SELVA: I won't attribute to the president what he meant. What I will say is, just in terms of raw numbers, we're still talking a relatively small - very powerful signal, but very small impact on the movement of assets through the Strait of Hormuz.

WELNA: Trump also told Time he'd go to war with Iran over nuclear weapons, but doing so for other reasons would be, as he described it, a question mark. Selva, the Pentagon's second-highest military official, seemed to agree, saying times have changed.


SELVA: What was true in the 1980s is not true today. We are not wholly dependent on the movement of Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Emirati oil out of the Gulf to sustain our economy. That was true in the '80s. So the idea that we would project that method of defending the freedom of navigation into 2019, I would argue, is probably ill-advised.

WELNA: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a similar note during a visit to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa. He said oil-importing nations such as China, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan all have what he called an enormous interest in preserving freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.


MIKE POMPEO: The United States is prepared to do its part. But every nation that has a deep interest in protecting that shipping lane so that energy can move around the world and support their economies needs to make sure they understand the real threat - the real threat to their interests in the region and the real threat to their countries' economies if we're not successful in doing that.

WELNA: But unlike in the '80s, when Great Britain and France joined U.S. efforts to protect tankers, the response from many nations to the latest flare-up has been cautious, if not, downright skeptical. Barbara Slavin is an expert on Iran at the Atlantic Council.

BARBARA SLAVIN: They don't want to encourage the United States to become more militarily involved in the region than it already is because they, frankly, don't trust the decision-making capabilities of this administration.

WELNA: This time, Slavin says, Iran seems to be sending the U.S. a very clear message.

SLAVIN: It's to show that sanctions are not cost-free. I mean, the Iranians themselves have said that if you try to block Iran from selling oil - any oil - that there will be consequences.

WELNA: And are they daring the U.S. to do anything militarily about it?

SLAVIN: I suppose it's a kind of dare. Yes, absolutely.

WELNA: A dare that, so far, has prompted only military maneuvers by the U.S.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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