The Tanker War
The tanker war seemed likely to precipitate a major international
incident for two reasons. First, some 70 percent of Japanese,
50 percent of West European, and 7 percent of American oil imports
came from the Persian Gulf in the early 1980s. Second, the assault
on tankers involved neutral shipping as well as ships of the belligerent
The tanker war had two phases. The relatively obscure first phase
began in 1981, and the well-publicized second phase began in 1984.
As early as May 1981, Baghdad had unilaterally declared a war
zone and had officially warned all ships heading to or returning
from Iranian ports in the northern zone of the Gulf to stay away
or, if they entered, to proceed at their own risk. The main targets
in this phase were the ports of Bandar-e Khomeini and Bandar-e
Mashur; very few ships were hit outside this zone. Despite the
proximity of these ports to Iraq, the Iraqi navy did not play
an important role in the operations. Instead, Baghdad used Super
Frelon helicopters equipped with Exocet missiles or Mirage F-1s
and MiG-23s to hit its targets.
In March 1984, the tanker war entered its second phase when an
Iraqi Super Etendard fired an Exocet missile at a Greek tanker
south of Khark Island. Until the March assault, Iran had not intentionally
attacked civilian ships in the Gulf. The new wave of Iraqi assaults,
however, led Iran to reciprocate. In April 1984, Tehran launched
its first attack against civilian commercial shipping by shelling
an Indian freighter. Most observers considered that Iraqi attacks,
however, outnumbered Iranian assaults by three to one.
Iran's retaliatory attacks were largely ineffective because a
limited number of aircraft equipped with long-range antiship missiles
and ships with long-range surface-to-surface missiles were deployed.
Moreover, despite repeated Iranian threats to close the Strait
of Hormuz, Iran itself depended on the sea-lanes for vital oil
exports. Nonetheless, by late 1987 Iran's mine-laying activities
and attacks on ships had drawn a large fleet of Western naval
vessels to the Gulf to ensure that the sea-lanes were kept open.
Data as of December 1987