An attack in the Gulf

MARK NICHOLS October 5 1987

An attack in the Gulf

MARK NICHOLS October 5 1987

An attack in the Gulf


In his priestly robes, Iranian President Ali Khamenei displayed outraged innocence as he stood before the United Nations General Assembly, vowing revenge and excoriating the United States for an “abominable act” of aggression in the Persian Gulf. But American officials soon provided convincing evidence that an Iranian navy vessel had been caught with its crew laying mines in an international shipping lane off Bahrain. After stalking the Iranian mine layer, Iran Ajr, in the dark—and satisfied that it was engaged in a warlike act—crews of two U.S. helicopter gunships attacked with machine-gun and rocket fire, killing at least three Iranian seamen. They were the first casualties inflicted by U.S. forces since they began escorting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Gulf in July, a blow that raised the prospect of an Iranian terrorist response elsewhere in the world.

The U.S. night attack on the Ajr—a 1,662-ton converted landing craft—also led to a new round of diplomatic and political developments as the leading Western and Communist-Bloc nations took halting steps to find a way of end-

ing, or at least containing, the sevenyear-old Iran-Iraq war. At the same time, the Iran Ajr incident puzzled some intelligence analysts who pointed out that Iran in recent weeks had appeared to be making tentative peace overtures to the United States. Because of that, the timing of the Iranian mine-laying activity on the eve of Khamenei’s UN visit raised the possibility that an ultra-radical faction in Iran might have deliberately engineered the incident—in an attempt to keep U.S.-

Iranian tensions at boiling point.

With Tehran showing little sign of obeying a July 20 UN ceasefire order, Secretary of State George Shultz served notice that the United States would put before the UN Security Council a resolution aimed at imposing a worldwide arms embargo on Iran. But a potentially leaky arms embargo was likely to have little more than symbolic value. And after Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and other key members of the Security Council withheld endorsement, the United States agreed on Sept. 25 to renewed diplomatic efforts toward a ceasefire, before moving to sanctions.

Instead, Shevardnadze, in what seemed to be a dramatic departure from previous Soviet policy, told the General Assembly that an international naval force under UN command should take over responsibility for ensuring the safety of shipping in the Gulf. With more than 60 Soviet, U.S. and European naval vessels in, or on their way to, the Gulf area (see

box), the nucleus of such a force is already in place. But U.S. officials dismissed the proposal as impractical.

Meanwhile, addressing reporters in the incongruous setting of the Starlight Room of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Khamenei predicted that the consequences of the Iran Ajr incident would “not be restricted to the Persian Gulf,” and predicted a time when the U.S.

“government will receive the dead bodies of Americans.” In turn,

Washington ordered U.S. embassies in the Middle East to be on the alert against terrorist attacks. And Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger—who left late last week for a five-day tour of the region— warned that U.S. forces would attack any other ships they found laying mines in the Gulf. As the air of tension in the region intensified, Arab traders who ply the Gulf in wooden-hulled dhows between Iran and the Arab sheikdoms, stockpiled food and other goods in case a new crisis paralyses shipping in the region. In the small state of Dubai, shipping company manager Lars Salfverstrom said that marine radio traffic reflected rising nervousness. “Everybody wants to be sure,” he said,

“that they are identified quickly as nonthreatening, peaceful shipping.”

The Iran Ajr incident was part of an alarming escalation in violence after the lull that accompanied the recent peace-seeking visit by UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to the region. A few hours before the Americans fired on the Iran Ajr last Monday night, Iranian gunboats at the northern end of the Gulf fired rocket-propelled grenades at the British-flagged,

102,799-ton tanker Gentle Breeze, causing serious damage. Later the same day a small Panamanianregistered research and survey vessel, the 181-ton Marissa 1, which was enroute to Dubai from Kuwait, struck a mine off Iran’s Farsi Island, with

the loss of four crew members. The attack on the Gentle Breeze was denounced at the UN by British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe as a “barbaric, cowardly and reckless outrage.” His denunciation was promptly followed by a British shutdown of the Iranian arms procurement office in London.

But the most dramatic—and potentially most incendiary—episode of the week was the attack on the Iran Ajr by U.S. helicopter gunships. Washington exploited the incident—clearly a military and political victory for the Americans—for its full propaganda potential. The U.S. navy took the 26 surviving Iranian crew members into custody aboard American warships and towed the badly damaged Iran Ajr, with nine of its mines still aboard, to Bahrain. Reporters and camera crews, allowed aboard by U.S. officials, saw the ship’s bloodstained interior passageways, its hull riddled with bullet holes—and the bulky black mines standing on the vessel’s deck.

At the Pentagon, officials revealed

that the attack was carried out by members of the U.S. army’s elite Task Force 160 squadron, which is equipped with fast, quiet helicopters and sophisticated night-vision equipment. The squadron, whose motto is “Death waits in the dark,” reportedly moved to the Gulf in June. It is headquartered in Fort Bragg, N.C., where the army’s special forces—the Green Berets—and the antiterrorist Delta Force are also based. Military sources said that the Iran Ajr had been under surveillance as a suspected mine layer from the time it left the port of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran several days earlier. Then, off the coast of Bahrain, two of the Task Force’s MH-6 choppers— which are so quiet that they are inaudible from a quarter of a mile away— crept up on the Iranian ship. Using Forward-Looking Infra Red (FLIR) sensing equipment that produces television images at night from distant heat sources, the two-man helicopter crews watched Iranian sailors dump mines overboard.

Then, without warning the Iranian ship, the choppers opened fire. U.S. sources said that the Iranians stopped laying mines, but defiantly resumed their activity half an hour later. At this, the U.S. helicopters attacked again—this time setting the Iran Ajr ablaze with machine-gun and rocket fire and forcing the crew to abandon ship. “I’m frankly surprised they needed to make two passes at the boat,” said a U.S. official. “The fire those

things can lay down is enough to make you stop anything.”

The discovery and capture of the Iran Ajr appeared to provide a measure of vindication for Washington’s hard-line stance against Iran. One day after a jubilant Weinberger announced that the vessel’s crew would be returned to Iran via the Red Crescent, U.S. demolition experts sank the Ajr in international waters in the Gulf. But the deepening U.S. involvement in the Gulf faced the Reagan administration with new international and domestic political challenges. In Washington last week, senators troubled by the U.S. involvement threatened to invoke the War Powers Act, which would require U.S. forces to withdraw from the Gulf after 90 days unless Reagan could satisfy Congress that their presence was still required. In response, Reagan warned that he would veto such a move.

At the same time, observers doubted that U.S. moves to obtain a UN arms embargo against Iran—which, unlike Iraq, has so far failed to accept the Security Council ceasefire call—would prove effective. An arms embargo resolution, said Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, “would be far more difficult to achieve if it were onesided.” And such an embargo appeared unlikely to win the support of two permanent members of the Security Council, China and the Soviet Union. Even if they should agree, arms control experts pointed out, such embargoes are rarely effective.

American diplomatic observers said that they were also worried that Washington’s hard line against Iran might allow Moscow to win influence with the regime in Tehran. Indeed, some U.S. intelligence experts suspected that the Iran Ajr incident might have been engineered to keep U.S.-Iran tensions from relaxing. To Brian McCartan, an analyst at Washington’s liberal Center for Defence Information, the timing of the incident was “so peculiar that it certainly appears as though a rogue faction” in Iran might have deliberately created it. For his part, Thomas McNaugher, a Middle East expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution, speculated that Tehran was unlikely to risk an all-out confrontation with the United States. “I don’t think that this particular incident will be the turning point,” said McNaugher. But with volatile pressures building in the Gulf, and no sign of an end to the seven-year war, the fear clearly was that an even more explosive American-Iranian clash could occur at any time.