Unless you’re an Iran analyst or have read, The Twilight War, by David Crist, you likely don’t know that the United States and Iran have been playing a game of cat and mouse in the Persian Gulf for decades.
The “tanker war” of the 1980s pitted American naval might against Iran’s far less capable fleet that relied –and still does- mainly on small boats that used swarming tactics to try and confuse the tracking and weapons systems of American warships. Iran’s maritime guerrilla warfare was effective at first given the lack of necessary technology by the U.S. to hunt down the large amount of mines that Iran was placing in the Strait of Hormuz – the vital waterway that separates Iran and Saudi Arabia and serves as the entrance point to the Persian Gulf’s shipping lanes.
But after a few years of harassment by Iranian ships, America got wise.
The Navy converted oil barges into Special Operations sea bases and committed the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to the fight. What resulted was numerous attacks on Iranian ships that got too close, the destruction of Iranian mine laying vessels, Navy SEAL and U.S. Marine attacks on oil platforms being used as staging bases by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the ultimate death of many Iranian sailors during this very warm cold war fight between the two nations.
But amidst all of this, the U.S. and Iran have never fought a war directly.
Both nations have known ever since the 1979 revolution that there is too much to lose in a conventional war and have been using proxies ever since. The U.S. is well aware that Iran is far better equipped to understand the pulse of the region, and that agitating its Persian adversary leads to dead Americans. On the other side, the Iranians have always understood that they would be decimated in a direct confrontation with the U.S., and having just signed a nuclear deal in order to reenter the world economy, fighting isn’t a particularly wise choice at this juncture.
If dead sailors, downed ships, and attacks on coastal oil platforms –technically an act of war on Iranian soil- haven’t started a serious brawl, a few captured Americans certainly won’t start a fuss. Their quick release was all but guaranteed given the unique détente between the two nations, and any further face-to-face encounters are likely to end the same.