The last time U.S. troops engaged in direct combat with Iran’s own regular forces was in April 1988, when U.S. naval forces struck Iranian ships and sea bases in retaliation for Iranian mining of the Persian Gulf.
A decade later the United States came close to attacking Iran again, this time in retaliation for a 1996 terrorist bombing that killed more than a dozen Americans. But then-president Bill Clinton instead chose to pursue a diplomatic rapprochement.
The near-conflict of the 1990s could hold lessons for present-day leaders.
Early in April 1988, the U.S. Navy frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine while escorting tanker ships through the Gulf. No one died aboard the frigate, but the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan ordered the Navy to retaliate.
On April 18, 1988, American ships, planes and helicopters attacked Iranian forces, sinking two warships and killing scores of Iranian sailors. Two Americans died when their helicopter crashed.
Eight years later on June 25, 1996, the terror group Saudi Hezbollah bombed a U.S. military barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen Americans died and hundreds were injured. The U.S. intelligence community suspected Saudi Hezbollah had strong ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps militia.
“FBI and other U.S. counterterrorism officials soon concluded the IRGC had played a role in selecting the target and training the perpetrators,” Malcolm Byrne wrote at the website of The National Security Archive at George Washington University. “However, for at least two years the Saudi government rebuffed U.S. demands for access to critical evidence it had collected from interrogating suspects in Saudi custody.”
Clinton ordered U.S. Central Command to draw up strike options. The president told Richard Clarke, his counter-terrorism adviser, that he did not “want any pissant half-measures.”