WORLD

Powder-keg politics

ROSS LAVER August 31 1987
WORLD

Powder-keg politics

ROSS LAVER August 31 1987

Powder-keg politics

WORLD

Last week, in a bid to present its side of the Persian Gulf crisis, the Iranian government invited Western correspondents, including Maclean’s London bureau chief Ross Laver, to Tehran. His report:

The Iranian helicopter swept out of the north over the calm, blue-green waters of the Gulf of Oman, 12 miles east of the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah. Dropping to an altitude of 300 feet, it skimmed over the sea within easy sight of the U.S. guided-missile frigate Flatley, one of 28 warships sent by the Reagan administration to protect shipping lanes in and near the Persian Gulf. However, the attention of the five-man Iranian helicopter crew was focused not on the U.S. destroyer but on the 32,000-ton Iranian supply ship, Kharg. “This is the ship that is leading our operation to sweep mines from the Oman Sea,” shouted crew member, straining to be heard over the roar of the helicopter’s twin jet engines. Sweat pouring down his face from the 38°C heat, he added, “Now the world will see that we do not need the Americans to keep these waters safe for shipping.”

Clearly, he was following the official line: the next day, declaring the Gulf of Oman safe for shipping on completion of a six-day operation in which four mines were destroyed, the government news agency IRNA boasted that Iran was capable of protecting navigation in the Gulf “if the countries of the region should co-operate with Iran.” But speaking to Western newsmen in the Kharg’s wardroom, naval Cmdr. Rahmat Taheri and the officer in charge of the minesweeping task force,

Cmdr. Ali Exadi, de-

clined to speculate on who had placed the mines in the first place. And another Iranian officer, Capt. Khoshmanash Faramarz, flatly denied that Iran was to blame. “We would not do such things,” he said, “because it would endanger our own oil tankers. But there are some in the area who want to disrupt shipping, and they play this game to create a climate of international crisis.”

His denial did not necessarily contradict the statement by Kamal Kharazi, a spokesman for Iran’s Supreme Defence Council, in Tehran the following day that Iran had, in fact, laid mines in the gulf—“for defensive purposes.” While Kharazi refused to specify where the mines were laid, the implication was that they were in Iranian territorial waters, leaving unanswered Western allegations that it was Iranian mines that holed a Liberian supertanker and sank a small supply ship earlier this month off Fujairah. However, Kharazi sounded a conciliatory note when he declared that Iran was “not opposed to the United States escorting Kuwaiti tankers,” even though the escort opera-

Silkworm R A N Missile Si~j IOU MILES Strait of Bandar Abbas H~m& KUWAIT SAUDI ARABIA BAHRAIN

tion “only shows the ill intentions of the United States.”

Earlier in the week Iran’s revolutionary leaders had seemed more combative. On Monday Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, declared that Iran was capable of disrupting shipping in the Persian Gulf “forever” with its mines,

Chinese-made Silkworm missiles and hundreds of small speedboats manned by suicide squads of Revolutionary Guards. “We have a mine-producing factory which produces mines like seeds,” warned Rafsanjani. And although some Western observers said that he was bluffing, there was little question that Iran had both the will and the capacity to strike at economic targets in the Gulf. Flying near the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas last week, foreign journalists saw what appeared to be batteries of Silkworm missiles installed in concrete bunkers along the barren northeastern coast of the Strait of Hormuz. Installed two months ago, these missiles carry 1,100-lb. warheads and have sufficient range to hit ships anywhere in the 26-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz. As well, the airbase itself was protected by surface-to-air missiles, able to defend against a possible strike by U.S. jets.

Despite the threats, Iranian officials insisted repeatedly that Iran would not adopt the role of aggressor. And foreign diplomats in Tehran generally agreed that Iran desperately wants to avoid being drawn into a military conflict with the West. After all, they say, Iran already has its hands full with its seven-year war against Iraq. As well, the Iranians must keep the shipping lanes open to continue exporting oil—their principle source of Western currency. Said a European diplomat based in Tehran: “In all probability, the threats amount to a lot of hot air. The Irani-

ans are very skilled at whipping up an emotional atmosphere without actually doing anything that might leave themselves open for retaliation.” Added another Tehran-based analyst: “From an outside viewpoint, the Iranians might seem crazy. But they are not. They know exactly what they are doing.”

Indeed, the atmosphere of crisis in the Gulf may actually serve Tehran’s purpose, at least in the short term. The United States has reportedly put pressure on Baghdad to show restraint in its raids on Iranian tankers and refineries. And Iraq’s backers, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, concerned about the pos-

sibility of a disruption of oil exports through the Gulf, also are reportedly urging Baghdad not to escalate the socalled tanker war. The result, many analysts say, is that Iraq is now much less likely to launch an attack on a ship carrying Iranian oil.

There are also signs that the U.S. decision to send warships to the Gulf has served to unify the Iranian public just as support for the war against Iraq was beginning to flag. Although most people, especially the poor and uneducated who make up 70 per cent of Iran’s population, still appear to support the war effort, there was widespread disappointment following the failure of Iranian forces to achieve a major breakthrough during a long-awaited ground offensive last winter. Since then, inflation has worsened and the government has been forced to bring in tighter rationing of such staples as meat, sugar, flour and milk powder. Said a longtime Western resident of Tehran: “People were starting to complain that the cost of the war was too high. But the Iranians have a strong nationalistic streak, and they are masters at using external incidents to divert attention from domestic problems.”

As if to underline that point, Rafsanjani rounded off the week with a characteristically rabble-rousing speech to a Friday prayer meeting in Tehran. In it he made the claim—later denied by the Pentagon—that a U.S. warship had hit a mine in the Gulf. Added Rafsanjani: “The Persian Gulf is a powder keg.” And that, at least, was an assertion few would dispute.

-ROSS LAVER in Tehran