An Iranian Silkworm missile Oct. 16 hit a U.S.-flagged oil tanker in Kuwaiti waters, injuring 18 crewmen. In retaliation, U.S. warships Oct. 19 bombarded an offshore Iranian oil rig that was being used as a base for Iranian gunboats. Iran responded in turn Oct. 22 by firing another missile into Kuwait's main offshore oil loading platform. [See 1987 U.S. Helicopters Clash With Iranian Boats; 3 Vessels Hit in 'Self-Defense']
The exchange of military blows brought Washington and Teheran closer to open armed conflict. Iran declared that it was now in effect at war with the U.S. as well as Iraq. But the Reagan administration insisted that the U.S. had not become an active belligerent in the Persian Gulf conflict, and resisted calls in Congress for invocation of the War Powers Act.
The latest developments suggested to a number of observers that both Kuwait and the U.S. had misjudged the risks involved in the policies they had chosen to pursue in the gulf.
In 1986, Kuwait had asked the U.S. to reregister 11 tankers--half of its fleet--under the American flag so they would be entitled to U.S. Navy protection against Iranian attack. (Iran viewed Kuwait as a belligerent because it aided Iraq financially and allowed arms purchased by Iraq to enter through Kuwaiti ports.) Kuwait's main motive was believed to be to involve both superpowers more directly in the Iran-Iraq war so that they would feel compelled to end it. However, while ongoing United Nations peace negotiations had made some progress, the war showed no signs of ending soon. Meanwhile, the decision to reflag its tankers had caused Kuwait's territory to come under direct Iranian attack for the first time.
For its part, the Reagan administration had agreed earlier in 1987 to accept Kuwait's request for protection, saying it wanted to ensure freedom of navigation in the gulf and prevent the Soviet Union from making inroads in the region. (Wanting to recoup U.S. credibility in the Arab world in the wake of the Iran arms scandal was also believed to have been a major factor in Washington's decision.) U.S. analysts had calculated that Iran would not dare attack one of the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, because it would fear a confrontation with the overwhelming firepower of the large American fleet that was assembled in and around the gulf. That prediction had now apparently proven wrong.
U.S. Captain Blinded
A large surface-to-surface missile hit the U.S.-flag, Kuwaiti-owned tanker Sea Isle City Oct. 16 as it was moving toward an offshore oil terminal in Kuwaiti waters. The missile slammed into the ship's superstructure, tearing a hole and starting a fire. Eighteen crewmen were wounded, seven of them seriously. The casualties included the vessel's American captain, John Hunt, who was blinded by glass fragments.
It was the first direct attack on a U.S.-registered merchant ship in the gulf since the Navy began its escort operations in July. Earlier, a reflagged Kuwaiti tanker, the Bridgeton, had been damaged by an Iranian mine in July.
U.S. military experts who examined the Sea Isle City concluded that it had been hit by Chinese-made Silkworm missile fired from Iranian-occupied Iraqi territory on the Fao peninsula, about 40 miles (65 km) north of where the missile struck. A U.S.-owned but Liberian-flagged tanker, the Sungari, had also been hit by a Silkworm just the day before. [See 1987 U.S. Helicopters Clash With Iranian Boats; 3 Vessels Hit in 'Self-Defense']
American experts said the Silkworm's normal guidance system, which homed in by radar on the largest target in the area it was fired into, was not accurate enough to pick out individual ships. That raised the question of whether the two attacks had been lucky shots or whether Iran had obtained a more sophisticated version of the missile.
(Kuwait's defense forces saw the missile coming and tried unsuccessfully to shoot it down with antiaircraft missiles. Kuwait was reported Oct. 18 to be seeking Western aid in building a new and more advanced anti-missile defense system.)
Iran did not openly claim responsibility for the attack. President Ali Khamenei told a laughing crowd at a prayer session in Teheran that, "Where the missile came from, only the Almighty knows."
The U.S. condemned the attack on the Sea Isle City as "an outrageous act of aggression" against Kuwait. However, U.S. spokesmen emphasized that the incident took place in Kuwaiti territorial waters, where Kuwait itself was responsible for defense. Although the tanker had been escorted up the gulf by U.S. warships, they were not in the vicinity when the attack took place.
Arab officials--speaking off the record--and other observers expressed incredulity at the administration's suggestion that it was up to Kuwait, not the U.S., to respond to the Iranian attack. Despite the disclaimer, most analysts said that if the U.S. did not retaliate for the attack, Washington's credibility would plummet among Arab nations in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
The press was filled with stories Oct. 17-18 suggesting that U.S. military leaders were drawing up a list of possible military responses for President Reagan and his advisers to choose from. Late on Oct. 18, Reagan told reporters that he had decided how to respond but "I can't tell you." That, and reports that senior congressional leaders had been summoned to the White House for a briefing, appeared to indicate that a U.S. counterstrike was imminent.
'Measured and Appropriate' Response
On Oct. 19, four U.S. destroyers pounded an Iranian offshore platform with 1,065 rounds from their five-inch guns, wrecking the structure and setting it ablaze. The Navy radioed the Iranians 20 minutes before the bombardment started, warning them in English and Farsi to abandon the rig. The U.S. said all those aboard it appeared to have escaped without injury.
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger called the raid "a measured and appropriate response to last week's Iranian Silkworm attack, an unprovoked attack on a U.S.-flag vessel engaged in peaceful, nonbelligerent commerce in the gulf."
The oil platform was referred to both by its new Iranian name, Rashadat, and its older name, Rostam. It had virtually ceased producing oil due to damage done by Iraqi bombing raids in recent years. According to the U.S., the rig had been functioning as a base for the fleet of small armed speedboats used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards to ambush merchant shipping in the gulf.
"This platform had been used to mount radar surveillance, to report on convoy movements, to launch small boat attacks against nonbelligerent shipping in the central gulf waters, and last week to fire on U.S. military helicopters," Weinberger said. "The platform was armed with 25-millimeter antiaircraft and .50-caliber weapons." [See 1987 U.S. Helicopters Clash With Iranian Boats; 3 Vessels Hit in 'Self-Defense']
The destroyers that blasted the rig were the U.S.S. Kidd, Hoel, Young and Leftwich. The frigate Thach and guided missile cruiser Sandley positioned themselves between the platform and the Iranian mainland to prevent any Iranian military response. F-14 fighters from the carrier Ranger flew overhead. One Iranian F-4 fighter reportedly took off but did not approach the U.S. warships.
Although the U.S. said all those aboard the rig appeared to have escaped in a small boat, shipping sources reported hearing an Iranian voice on maritime radio pleading for the American warships to cease fire so that an unspecified number of wounded could be evacuated.
After the 85-minute barrage of naval artillery, fire was consuming the platform's northern section, but the southern section was still standing. A demolition team of SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) special warfare commandos went to the rig by small boat and dynamited the remaining structure. Afterward, "all that remained was three pilings sticking up out of the water," a Pentagon spokesman said.
U.S. forces on the scene noted that Iranian personnel had heard the warning and fled from another platform about six miles (10 km) to the north. Another SEAL team "went aboard, looked around, destroyed radar and communications equipment, then left."
Iran Oct. 19 accused the U.S. of launching "full-scale war" in the gulf and vowed to avenge the attack "with a crushing blow."
"The United States has entered a swamp from which it can in no way get out safely," Kamal Kharazi, director of Iran's war information office, said. Other Iranian officials said that an unspecified number of "innocent" Iranians had been either wounded or killed in the U.S. raid on what was termed a nonmilitary target. Teheran also claimed the attack caused $500 million in damages and cut Iranian oil production by 25,000 barrels a day.
The most conciliatory statement came from Iranian Premier Mir Hussein Moussavi-Khamenei. Returning from a trip to Syria Oct. 21, he said, "After we deal our reprisal blow we will call it quits."
Reaction in the U.S. Congress was generally positive, although new calls were made for the White House invoke some version of the War Powers Act in order to give the Congress a decision-making role in the expanding gulf conflict. A Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated that 76% of Americans supported the Navy bombardment, even though 74% of them believed that the U.S. was likely to become involved in a "major military conflict" in the gulf in the near future.
Britain, France and West Germany all endorsed the U.S. reprisal, London most strongly. Japan expressed its "understanding" of the attack. The Soviet Union condemned it as "aggression."
Most Arab nations in and around the gulf avoided openly declaring their support for the American action, but many Arab officials privately expressed their approval. Some in fact suggested that the U.S. response had not been forceful enough.
Some observers had been expecting the U.S. to bomb the Silkworm missile sites in the Fao peninsula with carrier-based warplanes. That option was not chosen by Reagan, reportedly because it would have been more likely to provoke Iran and would have involved a high risk to U.S. fliers. Analysts noted that Fao was heavily defended, probably with Hawk surface-to-air missiles that had been made operational with spare parts secretly sold to Iran by the Reagan administration in 1986. Military sources also said that the Silkworm batteries were mobile and thus hard to hit. [See 1987 Iran-Iraq War: Basra Fighting Stalemated; Other Developments]
Kuwaiti Oil Terminal Hit
Kuwait's main offshore oil terminal was hit and seriously damaged by an Iranian Silkworm missile Oct. 22. Three workers were injured at the Sea Island platform, located about 10 miles (16 km) off the port of Al Ahmadi. It was the main facility for handling supertankers, and one-third of Kuwait's oil exports moved through it.
Kuwait strongly condemned Iran for the missile strike. Iran reported the attack on Teheran radio but did not assert responsibility for it. The U.S., while denouncing the attack, said it was up to Kuwait to respond to it since it did not involve American property or personnel.
Iranian parliament speaker Hojatolislam Hasheimi Rafsanjani Oct. 23 said that unless Iraq ceased its attacks against Iranian oil targets, Iran, "relying on God and being in possession of more effective 'invisible shots,' will use them effectively."