WASHINGTON — U.S. warships and aircraft sank or heavily damaged six Iranian navy ships Monday as a major confrontation erupted in the Persian Gulf in the wake of the United States' early morning strike against two Iranian oil platforms, the Reagan Administration said.
U.S. and Iranian forces fired on each other in the broadest and most direct conflict yet, suddenly escalating what for months had been a war of nerves in the volatile waterway.
After ordering U.S. naval units to destroy the oil platforms in the southern gulf, in what he described as a "measured response" to renewed Iranian mining of the gulf that damaged a U.S. frigate last week, President Reagan declared:
"We've taken this action to make certain the Iranians have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior. We aim to deter further Iranian aggression, not provoke it."
'They'll Pay a Price'
He added: "They must know that we will protect our ships--and if they threaten us, they'll pay a price."
No American fatalities or injuries were reported, but Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said Monday afternoon that a Cobra attack helicopter, carrying two crewmen, was late returning to a Navy cruiser and that a search was under way. Iran claimed that one of its warships had shot down an American helicopter.
There was no U.S. report of Iranian casualties, but crewmen were seen abandoning the oil platforms just before the facilities were destroyed.
The gulf clashes represented the most serious fighting between the United States and Iran since the stepped-up deployment of U.S. warships began nine months ago to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers threatened in the Iran-Iraq War.
The fighting left an Iranian frigate crippled and ablaze, another frigate heavily damaged and under tow and a patrol boat sunk. In addition, three small speedboats, typically used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards to launch rocket attacks on gulf shipping and known as Boghammars, were attacked by U.S. forces, with one sunk and two others heavily damaged.
The overall Iranian force is badly outgunned by the 25 to 30 warships that the U.S. Navy has been deploying in and around the gulf, Pentagon officials said.
But the fighting intensified after Iranian gunboats attacked the Willi Tide, a U.S.-owned commercial oil-field supply ship, which returned, damaged, to port in Dubai; two Iranian speedboats fired rockets and machine guns at a Panamanian-flagged vessel, the Scan Bay, in the Mubarak oil field off the emirate of Sharjah, and a British oil tanker was attacked and set ablaze.
Small craft near the Mubarak oil field also were fired on by three Iranian speedboats.
Another attack by Iranian speedboats touched off fires in an offshore oil complex of the United Arab Emirates.
Congressional leaders--some of whom were summoned to the White House on Sunday evening for a top-secret briefing on the planned mission--expressed fears Monday that the conflict could escalate. But although they raised some concerns during the White House meeting, according to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, they closed ranks Monday to support Reagan's decision to strike the oil platforms.
"I think it was a legitimate response," Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.
At the same time, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates generally supported the U.S. attack, although the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the growing crisis raised new questions about U.S. policy in the region.
'More Foolish This Time'
Although the Administration was prepared for an Iranian military reply to the strike on the oil platforms, the magnitude of Tehran's response caught U.S. officials by surprise. One U.S. official remarked that "they were a bit more brazen and foolish in their response this time," compared to previous incidents in which U.S. retaliatory strikes brought no direct Iranian responses.
"We were prepared to do more, and when they obliged us, we did more. The Iranians obliged by doing some pretty foolish things today, which we were aching for them to do," said another aide, a senior official at the Pentagon.
Carlucci, asked to explain why Iran ignored U.S. warnings not to respond to the initial retaliatory attacks on the oil platforms, said at a news conference: "I'm not sure that it's explainable in terms of Western logic at this point. I have only to assume that it's some kind of a fanatical reaction or slavish obedience to a contingency plan."
In the most extensive U.S. air action over the gulf, an American A-6 Intruder bomber, launched from the carrier Enterprise in the northern Arabian Sea just outside the gulf, destroyed one Iranian speedboat and badly damaged the other two.