The Stage is Set
On the morning hostilities broke out in Europe, the Soviet military forces in the Persian Gulf region consisted primarily of naval and air forces based in and around South Yemen. A small number of submarines were operating in the Arabian Sea and western reaches of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Squadron was located southeast of Sri Lanka and did not appear to be moving west at the moment. The Southern TVD had not reinforced its units in the region as the crisis intensified, as per Moscow’s orders. As a result, when the shooting began Soviet air and naval forces in the area found themselves limited in what they could accomplish.
The US military deployments to Saudi Arabia underway at the time were the first priority. The MPS ships carrying equipment for a US Marine Amphibious Brigade were estimated to be 24 hours away from making port on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. These ships had rendezvoused with a small force of US warships and were no longer defenseless lambs. Still, Soviet commanders in Yemen and back in the USSR were relatively confident about finding the ships and sending them to the bottom of the sea.
Compounding the picture for the Soviets was the reappearance of the Constellation battlegroup in the region. The closing of the Suez Canal was unexpectedly proving to be a tactical boon for US CENTCOM. Instead of having no carriers available to support operations in and around the Persian Gulf, Connie was returning in time to play a major role given the circumstances. Soviet planners now had to decide which group to give priority targeting to. The equipment carried aboard the MPS ships could influence any future land action in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Taking those ships out early might go a long way towards assuring Soviet success in any major land operations against Saudi Arabia. The US carrier and its air wing, on the other hand, could cause a lot of trouble for Soviet bases in South Yemen, and naval forces currently at sea. As dawn broke, planners in Yemen were leaning towards going after the MPS ships first and the carrier afterwards, but a decision had yet to be reached.
For that matter, the rules of engagement transmitted to Soviet forces were complex and frustrating. The subs positioned in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf were authorized to engage US ships upon receiving a message informing them the war was underway. Other Soviet naval units at sea, along with aircraft based in Yemen were restricted from offensive operations, having been ordered to adopt a defensive stance for the time being.
CENTCOM, under guidance from the Pentagon and White House, was operating under similar rules and restrictions. Unless US forces were attacked, they were not to engage air or naval units belonging to the Soviet Union, Iraq, South Yemen, or Iran. US fighters patrolled the northern and southern borders of Saudi Arabia, making visual contact with their Soviet counterparts in a number of instances, but discipline and training held firm. Washington’s reasoning for the ROE set was simply that the US did not want to shoot first and expand the fighting beyond Europe and the Med if at all possible. The Soviet intentions in the Middle East were unclear for the moment.
Iran and Iraq were the wildcards. Either of the two regional powers could begin hostilities on their own, or take actions that might inevitably lead to US and Soviet forces clashing. The cease-fire in place between the two did not diminish Baghdad and Tehran’s own designs on the Persian Gulf. Each nation-state wanted to make its own mark on the region, With the world’s attention now focused on Europe this could prove to be the perfect moment to act. Behind the scenes diplomatic efforts were underway by the United States and the Soviet Union to prevent this, and woo Iran and Iraq into their respective spheres. Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was playing both sides of the fence, using Soviet offers for assistance as leverage to gain better counteroffers from Washington.
Iran viewed and treated the superpower courting differently. Tehran held no love for Moscow, and openly despised Washington. The Soviets had thousands of troops, hundreds of tanks and aircraft in close proximity to its northern borders, making Iran’s leaders distrustful of Moscow’s assurances to respect Iranian neutrality in exchange for allowing its long range bombers to transit its airspace to strike US targets in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf area. Iranian leadership was divided as dawn approached on 9 July, 1987. Reports that fighting had erupted in Europe did nothing to move them closer to reaching a decision.
Iranian vacillation and Iraq’s penchant for playing ‘let’s make a deal’ as the world teetered on the brink turned out to matter very little. War was now underway. The flow of events and of fighting would now be determined by the policies, intentions, and national interests of the United States and Soviet Union. The demands and needs of smaller nations like Iran and Iraq were cast aside as the superpowers battled for global supremacy.