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CENTCAST | March 28, 2023

CENTCAST Episode 7: The Tanker War


The Tanker War was a big moment in early CENTCOM history. The US was involved in a low-grade combat at sea with Iran that almost escalated to a major theater conflict. In the 1980s, Iran and Iraq, embroiled in a massive land war, engaged in a series of shoot-outs on the high seas. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, supported by the United States (believe it or not), started the whole thing. In an attempt to weaken Iran’s ability to fight on land, he began attacking Iranian shipping vessel. The US eventually became involved and, with the world watching, the whole thing became, became really complicated. American forces were involved in a series of exchanges at sea. An Iraqi jet fired two missiles into an American frigate, killing 37 Navy Sailors. Then an American ship hit a naval mine and the US Navy engaged in the largest American sea battle since WWII. This is a WILD story, one in which Clausewitzian fog of war serves as a principal character. In 1988, an Iranian passenger plane was tragically shot out of the sky by an American guided missile cruiser, killing all 290 on board in a chaotic mistake. In the United States, that moment is largely forgotten but it was huge news back then – a catastrophic international incident. To this day, many in Iran believe this was a targeted shoot down ordered by the White House. We have the best possible guide on this compelling journey back to the Reagan days of foreign policy: David Crist, a senior historian for the Department of Defense and the author of a RIVETING book published in 2012 titled "The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran." David has been studying Iran for decades and he joins host Joe Buccino to describe the Tanker War in vivid detail. He’s a big figure on the CENTCOM campus in Tampa (his dad was the second commander in CENTCOM history). This is a story that begins with Iran as an early Cold War American ally. It's a story of the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. All the weird elements of CENTCOM history we’ve been talking about are manifest in this episode. It's a story with big moments: the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, the storming of an Iranian ship by Navy SEALS, the American shelling of an Iranian oil platform. It's a story of big global figures: Ronald Reagan, Ayatollah Khomeini, Zbigniew Brezinski, Casper Wienberger, Oliver North. It's also a story of American miscalculation. Finally, it's a story that involves the bizarre Iran-Contra scandal that almost brought down the Reagan presidency. All these elements are manifest in this episode. So, give us an hour (ok – just over an hour), because we break all this down in this fantastic episode. This is an episode rich with insight about the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, this history of CENTCOM, and Tehran's motivations. Anyone looking to understand our relationship with Iran today must first understand how we came to the edge of a full-scale war with the Islamic Republic during the Tanker War. Frankly, ANYONE who works in CENTCOM should feel an obligation to listen to this episode.