WORLD

Danger on the high seas

Robin Wright August 20 1984
WORLD

Danger on the high seas

Robin Wright August 20 1984

Danger on the high seas

WORLD

Robin Wright

It was a week of uncertainty and fear for the crews of oil tankers and other vessels plying the dangerous waterways of the Middle East as the 47-month war between Iran and Iraq continued to simmer. In the Red Sea alone at least 14 ships have suffered damage since July 10, and last week Egyptian authorities claimed that an unidentified group had planted mines in the busy shipping lanes leading to the Suez Canal. In the war-torn Persian Gulf, Iraq resumed its attacks after a month’s hiatus on oil tankers carrying Iranian crude. Iraqi officials claimed responsibility for firing heat-seeking missiles at the 122,945-ton Greek-owned, Liberianregistered supertanker Friendship L. Officials of the Greek merchant marine ministry said that the vessel had survived a direct hit which punctured a fuel tank near the engine room and that the ship would go to Dubai for repairs. Said the Friendship L’s second mate via the ship’s radio: “We were lucky.”

Although they were minor in scale, the incidents in two of the world’s most important shipping routes prompted near-panic among shipping companies. Never before have both strategic sea

lanes faced a simultaneous threat. It was the mines in the Red Sea that triggered the most alarm. The heavily used approaches to the Suez Canal accommodate an average of 60 ships a day. Egyptian officials last week hurriedly ap-

pealed for sophisticated U.S. Sikorsky RH-53D minesweeping helicopters to make the area secure. Both Britain and France have pledged to lend additional equipment. But Cairo was unable or unwilling to say authoritatively who had planted the mines. Said Egyptian Defence Minister Abdel-Halim AbuGhazala: “We think it almost 70-percent proven that it could be Iranians or Libyans.”

Other officials were more candid. Said one Cairo-based Western diplomat: “It has the hallmark of Iran written all over it.” Indeed, the blasts led many

observers to conclude that Tehran had been involved, possibly indirectly, with sowing the mines. Another suspect was Libya, which under its controversial leader, Col. Moammar Khadafy, is one of Iran’s few allies in the Arab world. Indeed, canal authorities reported that several Libyan container ships passed through the Red Sea shortly before the first explosions. According to the report, one Libyan ship manoeuvred suspiciously-sailing north, then abruptly changing course and heading south.

By week’s end the mystery deepened. One Washington-based ambassador from the gulf region flatly rejected the theory of Libyan involvement. An anonymous caller to news agencies in London had claimed that a shadowy organization known as Islamic Jihad (Holy War) had placed 190 mines in the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez. Islamic Jihad is the movement that claimed responsibility for truck bomb attacks on French and U.S. peacekeeping troops in Lebanon last year, attacks that claimed nearly 300 lives. But most Middle East envoys do not believe that such a group exists, other than as a name. Rather, they suspect that Islamic Jihad is simply a collective code name used by several small pro-Iranian organizations.

The attacks on ships set off a near-panic in the world's oil shipping firms, but the cause remained a mystery

For its part, Iran flatly denied charges that it was involved in the mystery of the Red Sea mines. Still, a spokesman for the Iranian government, speaking on Tehran Radio, applauded the development as a blow against Western nations. He concluded, “This incident added to the series of failures experienced by the arrogant powers in our Islamic region.” And Western diplomats said that Iran has a strong interest in causing panic in the Red Sea and that it wants to embarrass and intimidate Saudi Arabia for financially supporting Iraq in the gulf war. Since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein first launched what was to have been a short war to gain territory from Iran in 1980, the Saudis have pumped approximately $20 billion into Baghdad’s cause—to little effect. Now, Iraq is almost bankrupt, and the war is at a stalemate. Since last March Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Iran have attacked oil tankers calling at Persian Gulf ports. Iraq claimed that it intended to strangle Iran’s economy by cutting off its vital oil exports. And Tehran declared it could not allow other nations free access to the gulf while its ships faced attack. Observers attributed last month’s lull in tanker attacks to direct Saudi pressure on Iraq.

As 200 U.S. servicemen flew to the Red Sea to begin helicopter minesweeping operations, U.S. officials were intensely analysing the mining situation. “The mining itself is not particularly effective,” commented one Reagan administration source who did not wish to be identified. He said that the damage to all 14 tankers has been limited in scope. But, the source added, the spreading fear within the shipping community underlined the effectiveness of the strategy. He added, “It is psychological warfare par excellence.”

For his part, Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi contended that Iranian ships had been stopped and searched in the Suez Canal. Moussavi declared that “the Islamic Republic [Iran] could not sit by and watch its ships halted in the Suez Canal while others sailed freely.” The Egyptians, who last week admitted that they had searched Libyan and Iranian ships passing through the canal, insisted that once cleared by U.S. minesweepers, their territorial waters will again be safe. However, U.S. officials said they doubted that the security of the Red Sea could be guaranteed. That was a disturbing assessment for the tens of thousands of devout Moslems who next month will cross the Red Sea from Africa on obligatory pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Said one Reagan administration source, about the mining: “It could happen again and again.”

Kate Finch