More than 32 years have passed since the devastating Tanker War between Iran and the United States during the Iran-Iraq war. But now, in less than a month, a number of tankers have been attacked in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The United States has blamed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for these attacks, but has not provided any solid evidence to prove its claim.
Iran denies any involvement in these attacks. Nevertheless, the US launched cyber attacks on Iran’s weapons systems in retaliation against the attacks on tankers, and the UK has announced that it finds no reason to doubt the American conclusion that Iran was behind the attacks.
So why has Iran been accused of the attacks? Why does the world believe these charges, even though nobody doubts that there is animosity between both Saudi Arabia and Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UA) and Iran? Why is the Revolutionary Guards Corps the usual suspect when such things happen?
The Attack on Soviet Ship after Khamenei’s Speech
In the final years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the conflict had extended to the Persian Gulf. To protect its tankers Kuwait appealed to both the US and Soviet Union to allow its ships to navigate the Persian Gulf under their flags and their protection. In a meeting in Tehran with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful speaker of the parliament at the time, harshly criticized Kuwait for its action. He called Kuwait “a servant under the flag of colonialist countries” and asked Oman to convey a message to Kuwait, warning it not to partner with Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran.
Shortly afterwards, on May 8, 1987, the then president Ali Khamenei delivered a speech warning that “the Soviet Union must not put its interests in danger and come to the Persian Gulf.” A few hours after this speech, the IRGC’s navy attacked a Soviet vessel in the Persian Gulf.
The diaries of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani include the following passages about the crisis:
May 8, 1987: “Dr. Velayati [the Foreign Minister] informed us that the Soviet Union has protested against last night’s attack on one of its ships. I told him to make it clear that we did not do it.”
May 10, 1987: “Last night commanders of the armed forces had a meeting in my office. Attack on the Soviet ship was discussed. Although it was done without orders and due to a lack of discipline, the consequences have been positive so far.”
According to Rafsanjani’s memoirs, the Soviet foreign ministry complained in writing to Iran, but Rafsanjani told the Iranian foreign minister to deny Iran’s role in the attack. Nevertheless, President Ali Khamenei wanted those responsible for the attack on the Soviet ship to be punished and they were recalled to Tehran from southern Iran. But then the leaders of the Islamic Republic concluded that the attack had made a positive impact on Iranian public opinion and, as a result, those responsible were commended instead of punished.
Hossein Alaei, commander of the IRGC’s navy at the time, has been quoted as saying that after the Guards were commended and awarded, Ahmad Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, presented him with a message from the founder of the Islamic Republic, instructing him: “From now on the Guards must not attack ships without coordinating” with Tehran.
Although Iran denied that the Revolutionary Guards had played any part in the attack on the Soviet vessel in the Persian Gulf, since then evidence has emerged that it was indeed the IRGC that attacked the ship, and such evidence has been made public in the memoirs of various Iranian officials.
This pattern of the Revolutionary Guards taking action and the government then denying responsibility has been repeated so many times that it has become increasingly difficult to believe such denials.
A few weeks after the Guards’ attack on the Soviet ship, as the US was preparing to officially escort tankers in the Persian Gulf, the Lebanese Hezbollah, a group founded and organized by the Revolutionary Guards, sent Iran a warning about American naval presence in the Persian Gulf. “When Americans started talking about coming to the Persian Gulf,” said Mohsen Rezaee, IRGC's commander-in-chief at the time, “the Lebanese Hezbollah contacted us, saying that if the US was not confronted, the Americans would become brazen in Lebanon and would massacre us.”
According to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was acting commander-in-chief and the overall commander of the war against Iraq, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was initially against an attack on American vessels, but then changed his mind and said it was up to responsible officials to decide what was prudent. A few weeks later, on the morning of July 25, 1987, the Guards deployed mines on the route of an oil tanker convoy escorted by the US navy and, at approximately 6am, the tanker SS Bridgeton hit one of the mines.
“Now of if they target our oil wells and our oil centers and installations, we will target the oil centers and the oil installations of Iraq’s partners,” wrote Hashemi Rafsanjani in his diary on that day. Three months later the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf and the US started and, in the end, the Iranian navy suffered a crushing defeat.
A New Tanker War?
After the war ended, Iran filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice against US actions during the Tanker War but did not succeed in securing a court verdict condemning the US. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic has not abandoned its pattern of threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and to stop ships passing through the Persian Gulf. Since the Gulf War, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in at least two junctures.
In a letter in 2012, when Iran repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for oil sanctions on Iran, President Barack Obama reportedly sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei warning him against such action and telling him that Washington would regard such behavior as crossing a redline. At the time Iran stopped its threat to close this strategic waterway even though oil sanctions against Iran had yet to be removed. But after President Trumped pulled the US out of the nuclear agreement in 2018, it was President Rouhani who resumed the threat to close the Strait of Hormuz — a threat that won him applause from the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards.
Then, when he came under intense international criticism over his threats against commercial shipping in the strait, Rouhani said that there were many ways to stop oil exports by other countries and that closing the Strait of Hormuz was not the only option. A few weeks later, when it was estimated that Iranian oil exports had fallen to levels like those seen during the Iran-Iraq war, two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman.
Iran's denials are not limited to extraterritorial actions by the Revolutionary Guards. During the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) repeatedly warned Iran on a range of matters, but the Islamic Republic simply denied that these issues existed. In many cases, however, the evidence ultimately proved that Iran’s denials were invalid.
“In 2002, problems with the IAEA started,” wrote Hassan Rouhani, “because, without prior notice, [Iran’s] Atomic Energy Organization had injected UF6 gas [Uranium hexafluoride, used in enriching uranium]. One of the questions asked by the IAEA was why the injection had been carried without its knowledge. The IAEA had technical evidence and was certain that it had happened.”
As Rouhani's account demonstrates, this denial later turned into one of the basic points of contention between the IAEA and the Islamic Republic. But this was neither the only case nor the most serious one. The IAEA discovered traces of 97 percent enriched uranium in Iran, which does not have many uses apart from building an atomic bomb. Iran at first denied the IAEA’s claim but later it turned out that the traces came from secondhand centrifuges that Iran had acquired from Pakistan.
During the secret nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman, Iranian media reported the incident above but, as usual, Iranian officials denied it. Recently, Ayatollah Khamenei again denied his responsibility for the nuclear deal but his role in both the negotiations and the final deal is well known to both the United States and the Iranian side.
The most recent case is, of course, the accusation by the US that the Revolutionary Guards were responsible for attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which is denied by Iran. It is unlikely that this time, due to unprecedented tensions between Iran and the US that have increased the possibility of a military confrontation, Iran would want to trigger a war by attacking tankers in the Persian Gulf. But considering the 40-year record of the Islamic Republic, US memories of the Tanker War and the repeated threats by IRGC and political officials, the US points to Iran as the primary suspect in whatever incident happens that threatens the security of shipping in the Persian Gulf.
The behavioral pattern of the Islamic Republic has been to take an action and then deny it, even though later the denials have been proven to be disingenuous. This pattern have now made it very difficult to take any denials at face value.
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