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By Sebastien Roblin,The National Interest
On September 22, 1980 Saddam Hussein launched Iraq into a full-scale invasion of Iran—hoping to capitalize on Iran’s instability due to the Iranian Revolution.
Khorramshahr and Abadan, two major Iranian port cities just across and downstream the Shatt-al-Arab river from the major Iraqi oil-exporting port of Basra, were priority targets. The Shatt-al-Arab ran into the Persian Gulf and its lucrative oil shipping lanes.
Iraqi forces were supported by two oil rigs at Mina al-Bakr (today, al-Basrah Oilt Terminal) and Khor al-Omayah, both on the tip of the al-Faw peninsula. These mounted early-warning radars that kept the Iraqi Air Force alerted to Iranian air operations. They also supported raids by Iraq’s Soviet-built missile and torpedo boats on Iranian shipping.
The Iranian Navy’s mission was clear cut: take out both oil rigs.
The Iran-Iraq War by Pierre Razoux and Iran at War: 1500-1988, Dr. Kaveh Farrokh provide some of the few Western accounts of one of the most intense air-naval battles since World War II.
The Iranian navy assigned three of her La Commandante class missile boats—Joshan, Gordouneh and *Paykan—*to the job. The small, German-built 265-ton boats had a crew of thirty and could race at a brisk 41 miles per hour. Each mounted a single 76-millimeter dual-purpose (anti-surface and anti-air) gun turret, a rapid-firing 40-millimeter flak cannon, and two twin-rail missile launchers armed with American-built Harpoon missiles. Additional air defense was provided by crew members on deck hefting SA-7 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.
The first two attacks on the rigs were only moderately successful, however. In Operation Operation Kafka on October 28, Paykan provided air defense while Joshan bombarded al-Omayah and Gordouneh pummeled al-Bakr. Though the Iranian boats dodged Iraqi anti-ship missiles fired at excessively long range and shot down three Iraqi fighters, their guns overheated bombarding the oil rigs without putting either out of action.
A follow up-attack three days later (Operation Ashkan) had similar results: though damaged, the platforms and their valuable radars proved too resilient to the ship’s 3” guns.
Later in November, Iraqi artillery blasted the Iranian oil terminal Abadan, halving Tehran’s fuel production. Suffering from the economic sting, the Iranian military realized that Iraq was even more vulnerable to such attacks.
Heartened by their earlier success at fending off Iraqi air and sea forces, the Iranian Army, Navy and Air Force hatched a more ambitious plan that would require closer interservice coordination.
In Operation Morvarid (“Pearl”) not only did they hope to take the Iraqi radars out of the picture but also Baghdad’s vital oil infrastructure. They also hoped to destroy the Iraqi Navy in the process.
The operation began on November 28 with a diversionary strike by Iranian F-5 and F-4 jets on Iraq’s Basra airbase while the Joshan and Paykan resumed bombarding the two platforms. When two 235-ton Iraqi Osa II missile boats launched their cigar-shaped P-15 Termti missiles at long range, the Iranian vessels successfully evaded before dispatching the boats with their more reliable Harpoon missiles.
Then in the early hours of November 29, Iranian Chinook helicopters swooped down on the platforms accompanied AH-1J Sea Cobra gunships. An EC-130 electronic warfare plane orbited overhead, jamming any distress signals.
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While Sea Cobra crews equipped with night-vision goggles strafed the platform’s deck with 20-millimeter cannon fire, Iranian commandos roped down from the Chinooks and stormed the rig in a blaze of assault rifle fire, killing or capturing their crews while sustaining twelve casualties.
The commandos then rigged the platforms with explosive charges, used shoulder-fired missiles to fire at two Iraqi-jets, then made their escape in six amphibious hydroplanes as the platforms blew sky high.
At that point, the greater strength of the Iraqi Navy’s Osa missile boats and 25-meter long P-6 torpedo boats came rushing to the scene, looking to avenge the platform’s destruction in blood. The Iranian missile boats, running low on ammunition, did their best to use the wrecked oil platforms for cover from a flurry of Iraqi missiles.
Things had gotten hairy in the air as well as squadrons of twin-engine MiG-23BN fighter bombers and MiG-23MF interceptors roared into the battles alongside French-built Super Frelon naval helicopters armed with Exocet missiles.
The Paykan dodged several missiles before she received a glancing hit by a 5,700-pound Termit missile that exploded nearby. Her deck gun nonetheless managed to down a heavy Su-22 attack jet that went soaring overhead. She then fired her last Harpoon missile and sank another Iraqi boat, but was struck by a missile fired by an Iraqi helicopter.
Still, the Iranian naval command denied requests from its boat commanders to withdraw. That’s because their job was to pin the Iraqi Navy down so it could be hit by a counterstroke that was inbound from the Iranian Air Force.
Phantom jets came howling down to the Paykan’s rescue and quickly sank two or three of the P-6 torpedo boats using Maverick missiles. Later that day, an Iraqi naval detachment from Umm Qasr including an amphibious ship and three small patrol boats was destroyed by another Phantom strike.
A separate flight of F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Freedom Fighters struck Basra itself, knocking out surface-to-air missile batteries that might impede the air attack, and destroyed several more boats and landed Frelon helicopters.
Their intervention was too late for the damaged Paykan. While MiGs and helicopters swarmed around her, two Osas closed in four the kill, firing four Termit missiles at short range. Two struck, their thousand-pound warheads finally annihilating the battle-scarred boat.
Meanwhile, a swirling air battle had broken out between the MiGs and Phantom fighters, the latter also were supported by advanced F-14 Tomcat fighters with powerful AWG-9 radars.
Claims about who shot down what vary wildly. Iran lost between one and three Phantoms to ground fire and MiGs. Around six MiG-23s were destroyed by both Phantoms and missile boats, and one MiG was shot down by a Tomcat as the Iraqi pilot made an attack run on the Joshan.
In exchange for sinking the Paykan, the Iraqi Navy lost five Osa missile boats and four P-6 torpedo boats—roughly 80% of its strength. It would play little role for the remainder of the war, leaving it up to the Iraqi Air Force to launch attacks on Iranian shipping.
Even more significantly, the loss of the terminals cut Iraqi oil production to just 17% of its pre-war yield: from 3.25 million barrels per day to just 550,000 barrels. As Hussein had bitten off way more than he could chew by invading Iran, he would increasingly have to take out huge loans from neighboring Arab states to buy the vast quantities of military equipment Iraq needed to stay in the fight.
Eight years later, the Iranian Navy itself saw much of its own combat strength destroyed by the U.S. Navy’s Operation Praying Mantis—which ironically mirrored the Operation Morvarid in several striking respects. U.S. Navy surface ships bombarded two Iranian oil platforms used as military staging grounds and radars; both were boarded by troops from helicopters and subsequently demolished, and airpower subsequently sank much of the Iranian’s Navy’s strength—including the battle-hardened Joshan.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.