Book Review: America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-88

America's First Clash with Iran by Lee Allen Zatarain

America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-88 by Lee A Zatarain is an account of the American involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. Zatarain earned both his Bachelor’s and JD from Louisiana State University. He currently works as an attorney for the energy industry and resides in Texas.

I was just leaving the Marines when the tanker war started in 1987. I spent 1985 and part of 1986 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia serving on Embassy Duty, and remembered most of the events leading up to the re-flagging of the Kuwaiti tankers. I remember the AWACs crews in Saudi: Elf-1. I also remember the rumors (later confirmed) that information from the AWACs was turned over to the Saudi government with the understanding that it would not be given to Iraq…. wink, wink. Saddam may not have been liked, but he had the support of the Gulf States and the West. Britain sold their desert camouflage uniforms to Iraq. America, although restricted from selling military goods to either side in the conflict did manage to export military vehicles and helicopters to Iraq as farm equipment. Henry Kissinger said of the war, “It’s too bad they both can’t lose.” That quote pretty much summed up the feelings of most, even though the Iranian hostage crisis was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. 

America’s First Clash opens with the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf. The attack, although claimed to be accidental, killed thirty-seven sailors. The Stark for a variety of reasons did not fire in defense or deploy any defensive measures against a friendly plane. Iraq apologized. The pilot was rumored to either have been rewarded for his actions or purged for them; there is no definitive answer. Later American military personnel complained, after close calls, that Iraqi pilots shoot at radar blips without confirming the target. 

Kuwait felt the most pressure from the Iranian attacks on oil shipping. It started to appeal to the Soviets for protection, which in turn convinced the US to jump in before the Gulf was filled with Soviet warships. America, once it realized the extent of the support needed to escort the reflagged ship, requested permission to set up a base; both Saudi and Kuwait refused. Reagan responded to the American people that we never asked to set up a base. Although the protection of America’s much needed oil would be the publicly acknowledged as the reason to send the military to the Gulf, only 5% of the oil consumed by the United States came through the Persian Gulf. The threat of a Soviet presence was much more of the reason for action. 

A Kuwaiti oil tanker company did agree to pay the lease on two floating oil service barges for the navy to use as mobile sea bases. These barges were located in international waters and could be very easy targets for Iranian attack. The lack of a base was not the only problem for the American forces. The escort ships started duty without minesweepers. Iran relied heavily on mines in the gulf. In fact, the first ship captured by the American forces was the Iran Ajr in the process of laying mines. Mines were successful and cheap to produce. The USS Roberts sustained $95 million worth of damage from a single mine that cost $1,500 to make. Iran boasted it could churn out mines like seeds. Mines remained a hazard in the Gulf even after the conflict was resolved. 

Operation Earnest Will was the name of the military escort operation. Inside America’s First Clash, the background and events are covered in great detail and well documented. In addition to the main operation, Operation Prime Chance, Operation Nimble Archer, and Operation Praying Mantis are covered in great detail. Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes made by the US was the downing of Iran Air Flight 655; an Airbus A300 mistaken for an Iranian F-14. Zatarain gives a very detailed and fair examination of this event that killed 290 civilian passengers. 

I remember following these event very closely as they happened and researching many of the same events as a graduate student studying security policy. Zatarain does an outstanding job with both his research and writing. This bit of history, the US involvement in the Iran-Iraq War, will set the stage for America’s return to the Gulf just two years later as part of a United Nations authorized coalition and still continues to justify America’s presence in the Gulf. An outstanding read.

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