Global HotSpots

US Vs. Iran: The Gulf of Tonkin Precedent

Are the warmongers in the U.S. faking attacks from supposed Iranian sources? The lessons of the Vietnam War provide a clear warning.

Credit: Serhii Lohvyniuk -


  • Are the warmongers in the US faking attacks from supposed Iranian sources?
  • Trump has let it be known he does not want war with Iran. However, consistency of message is not one of his strong points.
  • With US warships and Iranian gunboats in such close proximity in the Gulf, the chances of an occurrence similar to the Gulf of Tonkin are dangerously high.
  • A conflict with Iran would represent a greater military challenge than toppling the Taliban or Saddam ever was.

Candidate Trump had vowed in his 2016 presidential campaign to slash U.S. deployments in the Middle East and to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” as well as to “take the oil.”

The latter point eerily reminded Iranians of the fate of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1951, whom they had elected prime minister and who then decided to renationalize the country’s oil production. It had been under British control through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It later became British Petroleum or BP.

Trump, the President, has let it be known that he has told the Pentagon he does not want war with Iran. However, consistency of message is not one of his strong points.

A worthy adversary

A conflict with Iran would represent a greater military challenge than toppling the Taliban or Saddam ever was. Iran has a recognized ability to attack U.S. forces and their allies directly and through proxy forces throughout the Middle East and perhaps well beyond.

The global economy would also feel the consequences. About 20% of the global oil supply passes through the Straits of Hormuz. The inevitable result – steeply rising oil prices – would perhaps be the most pro-environment move that ever comes off the hands of Trump.

But what exactly is under consideration? Bombing key targets in Iran, thus limiting civilian casualties? Or the overthrow of the regime? What would define the success of military intervention?

The United States has had its hand deep into Iranian affairs before. The CIA played a key role in the 1953 coup which ousted Mosaddegh and reinstated the Shah. The latter famously fled in 1979.

When it comes to tackling Iran, one wonders what U.S. warmongers like John Bolton offer as their principal argument? Weapons of mass destruction? No. The Iraq playbook can’t be repeated, but you don’t have to go too far back in modern U.S. history to find a template that may suit.

The Gulf of Tonkin scenario

It’s an argument that was used some decades earlier – and in a different Gulf. Dust down the Gulf of Tonkin scenario. The phantom attack on the USS Maddox in 1964 led to greater U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, with all the known consequences. The U.S. military got schooled in the process.

That playbook from 1964 seems to repeat itself now. Everyone is waiting for a U.S. ship, a new Maddox, this time to be hit by Iranian bullets from a speedboat. But in the Persian Gulf (it’s also called the Iranian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf).

Gunboat diplomacy

Drumming the war beat, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton announced on May 5 that the administration had ordered a carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf.

This was done on the basis of “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of unspecified Iranian threats. As was the case with the Gulf of Tonkin incident back then, there was nothing definite, all was nice and vague.

Then, a week later four oil tankers (two Saudi, one Norwegian and one Emirati) were damaged in an alleged “sabotage” attack. Again, few details have been released about the incident.

It is said to have taken place early on May 12 within the territorial waters of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman, east of the key UAE oil terminal port in Fujairah, near the Straits of Hormuz.

Scant information

Global maritime news websites have questioned the details surrounding the incident. The influential Lloyds List Maritime Intelligence, for example, criticized the authorities for “scant” information.

Maritime security company Dryad Global said in a note to clients:

Saudi reticence to report the incident accurately within their own media channels and the current failure to provide imagery evidence of the attack raises important questions as to the nature of the attack.

The report added:

It remains unlikely that the risk to safety of vessels and crew will increase significantly in the short term, however delays to commercial operations and the potential for interactions with military/militia forces has increased.

The Tonkin precedent spelled out

On August 4, 1964, the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy claimed they had been targeted by a torpedo attack by North Vietnamese aircraft and boats in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Two days earlier there had, allegedly, been a brief exchange of fire between the Maddox and North Vietnamese gunboats. It’s the August 4 incident that propelled the United States into what we now call the Vietnam War.

Close to midnight in Washington on August 4, President Johnson interrupted TV broadcasts and announced that two U.S. ships in the Gulf had come under fire in international waters. He described it as an “unprovoked” attack, and that “air action is now in execution” against “facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.”

Shortly after the August 4 “incident,” Captain Herrick of the Maddox cabled Washington that an attack on the ship could not be confirmed. Herrick said:

“Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox… Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.

The alleged “first attack” on August 2 could not be confirmed either.

Three days later, on the basis of the August 4 “attack,” Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. It authorized the president, without a formal declaration of war, to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” by the communist government of North Vietnam.

With U.S. warships and Iranian gunboats in such close proximity in the Gulf, the chances of a similar occurrence by confused commanders in a tense situation are dangerously high.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

About Tom Clifford

Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist, currently based in Beijing.

Responses to “US Vs. Iran: The Gulf of Tonkin Precedent”

If you would like to comment, please visit our Facebook page.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary Cookies

The use of certain cookies is required for the site to function correctly.



Improve content and site performance.