Intelligence for the Warfighter

Fighting Iran: Intelligence Support During Operation Earnest Will, 1987–88

By Richard A. Mobley

Dozens of recently declassified documents show the crucial role the Intelligence Community (IC) played in supporting US efforts to protect reflagged Kuwaiti tankers against Iranian attack during the height of the so-called “Tanker War” during 1987 and 1988. Earnest Will, the US Navy’s operation to escort Kuwaiti tankers granted US flag status, was controversial because of what critics saw as abandonment of US neutrality during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), an open-ended commitment, and increasing the risk of escalating conflict with Tehran.

Differing assessments of the risks, Iranian decisionmaking, and command and control (C2) fueled persistent controversy within the IC, frustrated some consumers, and became a matter of politicized, acrimonious congressional hearings even before the operation started. Nevertheless, CIA did a creditable job in providing structured, reasoned assessments of potential Iranian responses. The IC provided tactical warning of some Iranian attacks, and IC scientific and technical intelligence analysis assessed the danger posed by Iranian weapons, established Tehran’s culpability in their use despite Iranian denials, and offered persuasive evidence when Iran took the United States to court before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for attacking its oil platforms in the so-called “Platforms Case.”

This article relies primarily on declassified reports—often heavily redacted—on Earnest Will released since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Many of the reports are on CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room on or are posted in CIA’s CREST database, which is accessible at the National Archives in College Park, MD. As we approach Earnest Will’s 30th anniversary next year, the number of available documents on the escort effort has increased, with a significant trove of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), CIA analytic assessments and talking points, and internal memos becoming available since 2010. A smaller number of reports from military commands and other IC agencies appear in other databases. These reports build on linear inches of documents submitted by the US government to the ICJ (and to Iran) during the Platforms Case.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.

Posted: Oct 05, 2016 12:23 PM
Last Updated: Oct 05, 2016 12:23 PM