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In February 2014, the Iranian navy announced it was sending two warships toward the U.S. East Coast. “This move has a message,” Adm. Afshin Rezayee Haddad said, adding that the deployment is “Iran’s response to Washington’s beefed up naval presence in the Persian Gulf.
Haddad failed to mention that the two ships were a lightly armed tanker and a tiny, 45-year-old “destroyer”—neither of which would last long against the U.S. Coast Guard, to say nothing of the U.S. Navy.
That destroyer, the British-built Sabalan, has encountered the Americans before. In 1988, Iran mined international waters in the Persian Gulf, leading to swift U.S. reprisal. Amid skirmishes, Sabalan fired on American A-6 bombers. The planes counterattacked, dropping a laser-guided bomb straight down Sabalan’s smoke stack and severely damaging the vessel.
Iran’s ragtag navy has a long history of waging losing battles with the U.S. and other Western powers. And the most decisive battle of all for the Iranian fleet isn’t even being fought with missiles, guns and bombs.
Anglo-Russian invasion, August 1941
During World War II, the Allied powers worried that Iran, while technically neutral, might sympathize with and aid the Nazis, potentially depriving the Allies of the country’s oil. On Aug. 25, 1941, Commonwealth and Soviet forces invaded.
British and Australian warships steamed into Abadan Harbor as part of a surprise attack that one historian likened to the Japanese bombing of America’s naval base at Pearl Harbor just three months later. HMS Shoreham opened fire first, striking the Iranian warship Palang, moored at the pier.
Soon virtually the entire Iranian fleet—small gunboats, mostly—was in ruins … and commander-in-chief Adm. Gholamali Bayandor lay dead. The British and Soviets divided up Iran and deposed its shah. In the two decades following the war, the new regime rebuilt the navy with mostly British-made ships—many of which remain in service today.
Operation Prime Chance, September 1987
The new Iranian navy fought hard during the bloody Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, conducting blockades, amphibious raids and other complex operations. But Iran’s attacks on tanker ships—some strictly neutral, others admittedly supplying Iraq—incited international rage.
In 1987, Washington approved Kuwait’s request to “reflag” its tankers as American vessels, in order to allow the U.S. Navy to escort the giant ships through the Persian Gulf. The Americans’ Operation Earnest Will, lasting from July 1987 to September 1988, included several smaller efforts that resulted in the destruction of Iranian forces and the gradual dismantling of Tehran’s fleet.
The Americans were woefully unprepared at first, lacking minehunting gear and effective self-defense systems against anti-ship missiles—and neglecting close coordination with the Iraqis. The latter oversight resulted in an Iraqi jet accidentally hitting the American frigate USS Stark with a missile in May 1986, killing 37 sailors.
But American methods improved. The Navy converted two oil-service barges into “sea bases” for Special Operations Forces and armed helicopters, and the Army placed attack copters aboard Navy ships. On Sept. 21, Army Little Bird helicopters from the famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment—the “Nightstalkers”—attacked the Iranian vessel Ajr as she laid mines, forcing the crew to abandon ship.
A few days later, Little Birds approached three Iranian patrol boats suspected of setting up a tanker attack. The boats opened fire and the copters hit back, sinking all three.
Operation Nimble Archer, October 1987
On Oct. 16, 1987, an Iranian missile struck a Kuwaiti tanker, injuring 19 seafarers. In retaliation, a powerful U.S. task force targeted two inoperable oil platforms that Iranian forces—technically from the Revolutionary Guards rather than the mainline navy—were using as bases for armed speedboats.
American warships surrounded the platforms, compelling the Iranian crews to evacuate. U.S. Special Operations Forces climbed aboard one platform to gather up any documents left behind. As warplanes from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger flew overhead, four U.S. destroyers opened fire, setting the platforms ablaze.
Operation Praying Mantis, April 1988
On April 14, 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine while escorting tanker ships through the Persian Gulf. She was heavily damaged, although with no loss of life. The carrier USS Enterprise led a massive retaliatory attack.
Two U.S. destroyers and an amphibious assault ship carrying a battalion of Marines assaulted an Iranian oil platform being used as a staging base. The Iranians fired 23-millimeter cannons, drawing heavy return fire from the destroyers and Marine Cobra helicopters. Marines stormed the platform, capturing one surviving Iranian gunner.
Iranian speedboats raided three civilian cargo ships. As the Iranians withdrew, Enterprise’s A-6 bombers zeroed in, sinking one speedboat with cluster bombs.
The Iranian missile boat Joshan fired a Harpoon anti-ship missile at a group of American warships—and missed. The Americans fired back with Harpoon and Standard missiles then closed on the damaged Joshan, sinking her with their guns.
While the U.S. ships fought off Iranian air attacks, Tehran’s 1960s-vintage destroyers joined the battle. Sahand and Sabalan both fired without effect at A-6s overhead. The A-6s shot back with Harpoons and laser-guided bombs, sinking Sahand and badly damaging Sabalan.
At least 56 Iranians died in the fighting. Two U.S. Marines perished when their helicopter crashed. Battered, the Iranian fleet pulled back—and since then has been hesitant to make good on its periodic threats against Iran’s neighbors and the U.S.
For all the damage inflicted during the battles of the 1980s, the Iranian navy has suffered most from international sanctions put into place following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which transformed Tehran from an ally of the West into a bitter enemy.
Iran relied on British-made warships and had little shipbuilding capacity of its own, but after ‘79 most foreign manufacturers were barred from doing business with Tehran. The Iranian navy had to make do with the vessels it had on hand plus copies of those ships assembled by the country’s nascent maritime industry.
The result of which is an Iranian fleet that in 2017 is still composed mostly of designs from the 1960s, including survivors of the lopsided engagements with the Americans. It’s a fleet that stood little chance against the U.S. in 1987 and 1988—and is even more hopelessly outclassed today.
(This article by David Axe originally appeared at War is Boring in 2014.)