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Remembering The 'Tanker War' Of The 1980s


The recent U.S. confrontations with Iran bring to mind confrontations of the past. More than 30 years ago, the two countries faced off in the Persian Gulf region, and that history helps us understand what's happening now. NPR's podcast Throughline looks back at that history in a recent episode, and we're joined now by one of the hosts of that show, Ramtin Arablouei. Hey, good morning.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So how was it that the United States and Iran ended up face-to-face in the '80s?

ARABLOUEI: Well, Iran and its neighbor Iraq entered a really bloody and brutal war in 1980. And because oil was so essential to the economies of both Iran and Iraq, they began attacking one another's oil resources, which included these huge oil tankers that moved through the Persian Gulf. And eventually, Iran started attacking the oil tankers of Iraq's allies, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

INSKEEP: Is that where the United States got involved in all of this?

ARABLOUEI: Yes. At that time, up to 40% of the world's oil passed through this narrow area in the Persian Gulf called the Strait of Hormuz. And so the attacks on oil tankers started to pose a serious threat to the global oil supply. So the world started becoming really concerned, including the U.S. Rund Abdelfatah, my co-host, and I pick up the story in the piece.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: From ABC, this is World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.

PETER JENNINGS: Good evening. That was an American flag on the back of that ship. And we begin this evening in what is surely the world's most dangerous body of water, the Persian Gulf.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: In 1987, the U.S. launched Operation Earnest Will, one of the largest naval operations since World War II. The goal was to protect the supply of oil moving through the Persian Gulf. And to accomplish that, the U.S. Navy put U.S. flags on Kuwaiti tankers to deter Iran from continuing its attacks.

MICHAEL EISENSTADT: So we were kind of in effect protecting our own ships at sea.

ABDELFATAH: This is Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

EISENSTADT: We set up an arrangement, whereby we would have a convoy system where we'd pick up Kuwaiti tankers outside the entrance to the Persian Gulf and escort them for about a day or two until they reach Kuwait...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Zero, Lima, India, this is...



EISENSTADT: ...Drop them off. And then we would kind of go back and, you know, escort more ships coming in.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Members of Congress were openly questioning why are we putting American flags on the vessels of other countries.

ABDELFATAH: This is Karim Sadjadpour. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

SADJADPOUR: You know, why are we potentially getting involved in a war between two countries which are essentially both adversaries of the United States, Iran and Iraq?

ARABLOUEI: This was one of the first times the U.S. had engaged militarily with Iran. So we didn't really know what to expect.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That took a new turn today when American warships shelled and destroyed two Iranian oil platforms and then raided another. It was in retaliation for the weekend missile attack by Iran on an American-flagged tanker.

SADJADPOUR: And increasingly what you see is this conflict zone in which everyone has their finger on the trigger. It's a fog of war. You're at sea, and there's constant risk of miscalculation. There's lack of communication.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Islamic news agency said the U.S. has become involved in a full-fledged war with Iran. The Iranian president Ali Khamenei is quoted as saying we will retaliate.

ARABLOUEI: Then the U.S. sent a new ship to the region, the USS Vincennes.

EISENSTADT: The USS Vincennes was a new class of ship with a radar system that could see further out. Their role, generally, was to kind of hang back and provide big picture of the air defense environment for the other ships that were operating in the region.

ARABLOUEI: And on July 3, 1988, things took a deadly turn.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Combat, this is (unintelligible). Do you have any more (unintelligible) in the vicinity?

SADJADPOUR: On July 3, 1988...

EISENSTADT: What happened on July 3 was a Pakistani tanker had come under attack. The Vincennes sent its helicopter to investigate.

ARABLOUEI: And as it approached the area where the attack was taking place...

EISENSTADT: Iranian ships fired warning shots at the helicopter for it to stay away. The helicopter thought they were under attack and reported it as such. The Vincennes then steamed to the aid of its helicopter. In doing so, they moved into Iranian territorial waters, which was a violation of U.S. rules of engagement.


ABDELFATAH: At the same time all that was happening...

EISENSTADT: An Iranian civilian aircraft takes off from the airport in the city of...

SADJADPOUR: Bandar Abbas.

EISENSTADT: ...Which is a air airfield and a...

SADJADPOUR: ...Port city in the south of Iran.

EISENSTADT: ...En route to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

SADJADPOUR: And what would usually be a 30-minute flight, very easy.

EISENSTADT: And as it turns out, it was flying right over the area in which, you know, combat was going on on the surface.


EISENSTADT: It takes off.


EISENSTADT: The crew of the Vincennes thought that this civilian jet was actually an Iranian fighter aircraft.

SADJADPOUR: And they were trying to communicate with it, and they weren't getting any response because this Iranian plane was a civilian airliner which wasn't on a military frequency. So after numerous attempts of trying to communicate with it...

EISENSTADT: They shot two surface-to-air missiles...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We had to have gotten it. That was a dead-on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Relax. Everybody relax.


EISENSTADT: ...Which brought down the Iranian airliner, killing 290 civilians aboard.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: There has been a dramatic and sudden escalation of hostilities in the Persian Gulf involving U.S. forces. There is the possibility that U.S. Navy missiles may have accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, a civilian airliner carrying nearly 300 people. The Pentagon says the missile...

SADJADPOUR: To this day, the Iranian government believes there was no way this was an accident.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Saying that it was doubtful that the plane that was shot down was an F-14 fighter.

SADJADPOUR: But what the U.S. side talks about is the broader context. You know, there was constant attacks taking place during that time. And so the United States acknowledged it as a terrible mistake.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: President Ronald Reagan offered what is known as ex gratia payments, voluntary payments by the United States government to the families of the victims of Iran Air 655. And this settlement today...

EISENSTADT: One of the things you often hear today is that there is a great - there's always a worry about miscalculation in dealing with the Iranians. And that's something we should also keep in mind now when I think some of the discussions about the potential for full-blown war between the United States, Iran occurring, that there's always the potential for inadvertent escalation as a result of a tragic mistake.

INSKEEP: Wow. Ramtin Arablouei, thanks so much for coming by.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He was joined by Rund Abdelfatah. They are hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline. And you can hear the full episode wherever you get your podcasts.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.