In 1987, a Rogue U.S. Navy Admiral Schemed for War With Iran
Adm. James Lyons was determined to topple the Tehran regime
By 1987, the Iran-Iraq War had turned the Persian Gulf into a shooting gallery. As part of a total war strategy, both Baghdad and Tehran targeted merchant shipping to impede the other side’s war effort. During eight years of brutal fighting, hundreds of commercial vessels, many belonging to neutral countries, were attacked, costing the lives of hundreds of merchant seamen and causing millions of dollars in damage.
The perilous security situation in one of the world’s vital waterways influenced the Reagan administration’s decision to intervene. From 1987 to 1988, the United States escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers during Operation Earnest Will. Superpower intervention did not result in an expansion of the conflict, but the one-and-a-half-year period became arguably the closest America and Iran came to full-scale war.
In the foreground, the U.S. escorted convoys through the dangerous region, while fighting a shadowy conflict in the background against Iran’s unconventional forces. Tehran’s mine-laying and small boat attacks in the Gulf were countered with increasingly forceful responses, culminating in Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988
In a single day, the U.S. and Iran fought the largest air-sea battle since World War II, with the latter losing the bout in lopsided fashion. With Iran now weary of war, Ayatollah Khomeini sought peace, and the 20th century’s third-deadliest armed conflict came to an end in August 1988. Earnest Will concluded a month later.
To this day, there exists no shortage of animosity between the U.S. and Iran. Yet, the “Tanker War” period of 1987 to 1988 remains the only instance the bitter enemies came to blows. But instead of merely acting as safeguard of the Gulf, what if the United States had chosen to take the fight directly to Iran earlier on and settle the score, once and for all?
David Crist, senior historian to the U.S. government and Marine Corps Reserve officer, devoted an entire chapter to a little-known, eye-opening episode in his epic 2012 chronicle of U.S.-Iran relations since the rise of the Islamic Republic.
Years of research, access to classified documents, and extensive interviews conducted by Crist with the key participants, revealed Adm. James “Ace” Lyons, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, intended to start a war with Iran in 1987, using an idea he had developed independently. He sought to execute it by exploiting an operational advantage that would come late summer of that year and, hopefully, after having sold it to his superiors in Washington.
The idea, codenamed Operation Window of Opportunity, was first developed by Lyons in late 1986. In June the following year, Lyons made his pitch to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The “opportunity” the admiral was referring to would come on Aug. 26. The aircraft carrier USS Constellation and her battle group, deployed to the Gulf of Oman in support of Earnest Will, was due to be relieved by USS Ranger and her battle group.
This created a brief “window” where two carrier battle groups would be on-station to provide air power. In addition, the recently-recommissioned World War II-era battleship USS Missouri plus five other warships had also been tasked to Earnest Will. Rarely would so much firepower be available in-theater at once.
Ace Lyons’s scheme called for the use of Constellation, Ranger and Missouri in two days of attacks on Iranian military targets up and down the Gulf coast. On the first day, airfields, command-and-control centers, missile sites and ports, among other military facilities, would be struck. On the second day, Iran’s economy would be targeted, with strikes proposed on oil facilities on Kharg Island, commercial harbors, as well as mining the major Iranian ports at Bushehr and Bandar Abbas.
A U.S. Navy F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 154 getting ready for launch off the deck of USS Constellation. Navy photo
“We can cut 70 percent of their imports and exports,” Lyons informed Weinberger. “The objective of these strikes is to facilitate freedom of navigation and apply pressure to Iran to enter into serious negotiations to end the Iran-Iraq War.” The admiral also believed the strikes could topple the Khomeini regime.
“Ace” then took his case to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William Crowe, in August. “I have come to the conclusion that no amount of ships and aircraft will deter Iran as long as its leaders believe we will not respond to isolated attacks,” Lyons stated. The pitch to Crowe featured new proposals, including using Missouri to bombard the Silkworm missile sites around the Strait of Hormuz, a recent addition to Iran’s arsenal that posed a grave threat to Gulf shipping and U.S. naval forces.
It also called for the 13th Marine Amphibious Unit to conduct an amphibious assault and seizure of the island of Abu Musa, which belonged to Iran. Emphasizing the need to be “vigorous and decisive,” Lyons specified Aug. 29 as the date to execute the operation.
Reaction to the idea was lukewarm, however. The publicly-hawkish, but restrained-in-practice Weinberger had no desire for the United States to take on Iran in a war without a major provocation. Crowe found it a difficult sell for Reagan, especially at a time when the administration was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal.
While Lyons believed his idea would “save the president,” the administration sought to avoid a confrontation with Iran. Even at the height of hostilities, the president downplayed the risk of war, even though the facts on the ground indicated a different trendline.
But if his superiors would not green-light a war on Iran, Ace Lyons would give them a reason to. He encouraged the Constellation battle group to act aggressively, in hopes of either strong-arming Iran into submission or provoking them into a confrontation.
One almost took place. On Aug. 8, two F-14 Tomcat fighters from Connie fired at what they believed was an Iranian air force F-4 Phantom II fighter attempting to engage a U.S. P-3C Orion monitoring a convoy operation. Despite multiple missiles fired by the F-14s, none found their target, and both sides elected to disengage before the situation escalated any further.
Undeterred, Lyons continued to encourage and order his subordinate officers to take part in his scheme, in hopes Washington would eventually approve Window of Opportunity.
But Washington never did and Aug. 29 came and went without America going to war with Iran. Furthermore, Lyons’ unilateralism exposed a rift that existed between him and many of the other officers in charge of Persian Gulf operations. Gen. George Crist, commander-in-chief of Central Command — and father of David Crist — felt as though Lyons was hindering operations by trying to pick his own fight with Iran, one neither Crist, the Reagan administration, nor even Tehran, sought. Eventually, Lyons’ rogue-ish behavior and toe-stepping got the best of him.
By the time he had earned his fourth star, Ace Lyons, a career surface warfare officer, had established himself as an aggressive and unorthodox problem-solver, earning him favor of influential figures such as Crowe. But his best assets were also his greatest liabilities. His tendency to disregard political considerations in the conduct of war concerned many of those above him, who in turn frustrated him by not endorsing his proposals.
An Iranian P-3 patrol plane. U.S. Navy photo
Worse, he deliberately side-stepped his immediate superiors, such as Adm. Ronald Hays, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, and even the Navy’s most senior officer at the time, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Carlisle Trost. The latter harbored reservations regarding Lyons’ practices, which included mock air attacks on Soviet forces stationed in the Pacific. The Navy’s top leader believed the intrepid four-star was reckless enough to start a war with the Soviet Union.
Window of Opportunity was the last straw. Having been kept out of the loop repeatedly during Lyons’ push for war, Hays, with the backing of Reagan adviser Richard Armitage and Adm. Trost, lobbied Weinberger to have the Pacific Fleet commander forced into retirement. Weinberger concurred and even Lyons’ most powerful ally, Crowe, found it impossible to defend him.
It was not a clean dismissal. Drama and politics tainted every moment of the affair. Feeling betrayed and blindsided, Lyons nonetheless chose to bow out quietly. On Oct. 1, 1987, James Lyons’ 36-year career ended.
America could have unleashed a world of hurt upon Iran. Constellation and Ranger each embarked an air wing comprised of nearly 60 combat aircraft. In addition to her 16-inch guns, the battleship Missouri was armed with the latest weaponry, including Tomahawk cruise missiles. The heavy armor of the old battlewagon would have allowed Mighty Mo to shrug off the tremendous blow delivered by a missile as powerful as a Silkworm.
Numerous other surface combatants were available; although their ability to attack land targets was limited, they were more than capable of defending the force from air and sea attack and destroying Iran’s navy. With time, the war plan grew even more ambitious, eventually incorporating the attack submarine USS Honolulu to torpedo Iran’s ships and mine their harbors.
Less apparent was the likelihood of achieving the intended policy objectives. One of Tehran’s greatest fears was U.S. intervention in the war on the side of Iraq. The combination of Praying Mantis and the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988 convinced the mullahs that was exactly what was going to happen.
This false perception played a major role in convincing Iran to agree to the ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq War. But would it have brought down the Khomeini regime as Lyons believed? That would have depended, in large part, on how extensively the American attack diminished the ability of the regime to preserve itself and quash dissent. Consistent with its authoritarian nature, the internal security apparatus of Iran was and remains extensive and it would have taken more than a two-day air-naval bombardment on Iran to neutralize it.
Finally, as with Afghanistan and Iraq, the question becomes – what next? Who would take power in Tehran? What sort of society would Iran become post-Ayatollah? What is the likelihood the new regime would not be corrupt or at least not as anti-American as the last one? Recent experience offers little reason for optimism either then or now.
In the decades following his retirement, Ace Lyons remained defiant as ever, every bit the maverick he had been during his career in uniform. As recently as 2015, the 88-year-old Lyons referred to Window of [Missed] Opportunity, laying blame at the feet of Caspar Weinberger and William Crowe — both of whom were deceased by then — for failing to “change the course of history” by striking the Khomeini regime in its most vulnerable state.
No supporter of the Obama administration, Lyons also accused the 44th president of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the highest levels of the federal government, among other bizarre accusations.
The Trump administration has made no secret its desire to tow a hard line against Tehran. It has filled its ranks with officials harboring a confrontational attitude towards the Islamic Republic. Citing it as the “worst deal ever made,” it only seems to be a matter of time before the nuclear deal is finally scrapped by the president. War with Iran has been a significant concern for every American administration since 1979, but the nature of the Trump presidency makes this concern particularly acute.
The odds are great that, in the future, an American military officer or policymaker will find another “window of opportunity” with regards to Iran. Hopefully, the opportunity will be one of settling differences, not scores.
Edward Chang is a contractor-mariner for Military Sealift Command. When not at sea, he writes on military history and national security-related topics. Any thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of any government agency.