Clandestine American military attacks against Iran would be nothing new. Almost twenty years ago Washington was waging war against Iran, via its de facto ally of the time, Saddam Hussein, as well by way secret operations, never authorized by Congress. What happened back then should serve as a warning about the kind of clandestine games that Washington and its allies in the region could be playing over the coming months.
From the start, the U.S. had encouraged Saddam to invade Khomeini's Iran in 1980. And, as has become quite well known, over the following years, Washington supplied Saddam with increasing amounts of arms as well as satellite intelligence.
By 1987, the U.S. was secretly shipping American-made weapons directly to Iraq from the sprawling U.S. Rhine-Mein Airbase in Frankfurt. Some of Saddam's elite troops were even being sent to the United states for instruction in unconventional warfare by U.S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg.
As I detail in my book, Web of Deceit, the Reagan administration would be drawn even more into the conflict. Encouraged by the U.S., Saddam intensified his attacks against vital Iranian economic targets, including neutral tankers in the Gulf. Iran of course retaliated. Concerned about the safety of their own ships, the Kuwaitis asked for protection. Otherwise, they threatened, they would have to accept assistance that was being offered by the Soviets. Some U.S. officials worried back then--just as they do today--that by venturing into the narrow confines of the Gulf, the U.S. risked direct conflict with Iran. Despite such concerns, American warships were dispatched.
On May 1987,it became dramatically clear how dangerous that policy was. An Iraqi Air Force plane mistakenly attacked an American frigate, the U.S.S. Stark, killing thirty-seven of the crew. The White House immediately accepted Iraqi apologies. Then, to counter mounting congressional opposition to the operation, the Reagan administration decided to go one step further. They would justify a continued U.S. presence in the Gulf by permitting Kuwaiti ships to operate under the American flag. That fiction would give the Kuwaitis the right to American protection.
A U.S. liaison officer was stationed in Baghdad to avoid a repeat of the Stark incident. That, at least, was the cover story; in fact, over the following months, American officers would help Iraq carry out long-range strikes against key Iranian targets, using U.S. ships as navigational aids. "We became", as one senior U.S. officer told ABC's Nightline, "forward air controllers for the Iraqi Air Force."
The Reagan administration, in effect, decided to undertake a secret war, not bothering with congressional authorization.
Heavily armed U.S. Special Operations helicopters, stealthy, sophisticated killing machines that could operate by day or night, were ordered to the Persian Gulf. Their mission was to destroy any Iranian gunboats they could find. Other small, swift American vessels, posing as commercial ships, lured Iranian naval vessels into international waters to attack them. The Americans often claimed they attacked the Iranian ships only after the Iranians first menaced neutral ships plying the Gulf. In some cases however, the neutral ships which the Americans claimed to be defending didn't even exist.
Beginning in July 1987, the CIA also began sending covert spy planes and helicopters over Iranian bases. Several engaged in secret bombing runs, at one point destroying an Iranian warehouse full of mines. In September 1987, a special operations helicopter team attacked an Iranian mine-laying ship with a hail or rockets and machine-gun fire, killing three Iranian sailors. Official authorization for those clandestine attacks was purposely restricted to a low level in the Reagan administration so that top government officials could deny all knowledge of the illegal operations.
By early 1988, officers from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency dispatched to Baghdad were actually planning day-by-day strategic bombing strikes for the Iraqi Air Force. In April 1988, the day before a key Iraqi offensive, U.S. forces sank or demolished half the Iranian navy--one destroyer and a couple of frigates.
If Saddam had not ultimately prevailed, the Pentagon had prepared an even more ambitious strategy: to launch an attack against the Iranian mainland. "The real plans were for a secret war, with the U.S. on the side of Iraq against Iran, on a daily basis," retired Lieutenant Colonel Roger Charles, who was serving in the office of the secretary of defense at the time, told British reporter Alan Friedman.
As Admiral James A. "Ace" Lyons, who was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet put it, "We were prepared, I would say at the time, to drill them back to the fourth century."
Relatively cooler heads prevailed. According to Richard L. Armitage, who at the time was assistant secretary of defense "The decision was made not to completely obliterate Iran. We didn't want a naked Iran. We wanted a calm, quiet peaceful Iran. However, had things not gone well in the Gulf, I've no doubt that we would have put those plans into effect."