Convoy to a minefield

BOB LEVIN August 3 1987

Convoy to a minefield

BOB LEVIN August 3 1987

Convoy to a minefield


The U.S. sailors were at their battle stations. Wearing helmets and flack jackets, they manned machine-guns and anti aircraft missiles, while lookouts peered warily through binoculars and technicians scanned radar screens.

Steaming north in the Persian Gulf last week, the convoy—two Kuwaiti tankers flying American flags and escorted by three U.S. warships — was inaugurating Washington’s plan to reflag 11 Kuwaiti tankers to protect them from Iranian attack. Up to then the trip had been relatively uneventful; four Iranian Phantom jets had flown within 15 miles of the convoy two days earlier, only to turn back after a warning from the U.S. warships. But at about 7 a.m. on July 24, just 120 miles southeast of the convoy’s destination in Kuwait, an explosion shook the tanker Bridgeton. “We’ve been hit, we’ve been hit,” U.S. navy Lieut. Richard Vogel radioed to the destroyer USS Kidd, the command ship.

The Bridgeton had struck a mine, setting off a blast so powerful that it nearly knocked down crew members standing on the bridge 300 metres away. No one was hurt, and the U.S. convoy proceeded on to the Kuwaiti oil terminals, completing a three-day, 550-mile journey from the Strait of Hormuz through the Gulf. But the explosion was a jolting reminder of the risks inherent in the expanded U.S. naval presence in the area. Clearly gloating, Iranian Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi called the mine blast “an irreparable blow on America’s political and military prestige.” That was plainly an overstatement, but there was no disputing Mousavi’s assertion that the incident proved “how vulnerable the Americans are.”

The reflagging policy has been controversial from the start. Even before the plan’s maiden voyage, Democratic con-

gressmen complained that it would drag the United States deeper into the sevenyear-old war between Iran and Iraq. As if to emphasize the risks, Kuwaiti officials, who had requested U.S. and Soviet involvement to help protect the coun-

try’s tankers from Iranian attack, promptly disassociated their country from the incident. “They are flying the American flag,” said Prime Minister Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, “so I am sure that the Americans will defend them.”

The Soviets, while agreeing to lease three tankers to Kuwait, were still critical of the larger U.S. presence. “This concentration of naval forces,” said Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Boris Pyadyshev, “is devoid of all sense and could be a detonator for a major conflict.” As it turned out, the first U.S. convoy did the Soviets a service. Three hours after the explosion, Cmdr. Daniel Murphy of the Kidd radioed three Soviet vessels in the Gulf to tell them the exact location of the mine. “Advise you remain clear of that area,” Murphy said. Replied the Soviet captain in heavily ac-

cented English: “Thank you, American warship.”

Washington and Moscow also managed to co-operate on the diplomatic front: earlier in the week they helped pass a unanimous United Nations Secu-

rity Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war. U.S. representatives led the initiative, and officials said that in about two months they would sponsor another UN resolution calling for an international arms embargo if either Iran or Iraq refused to comply with the ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Soviet news agency TASS reported that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had written to U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposing direct superpower talks on the Gulf war. But a White House spokesman maintained that the UN was the proper forum for such discussions.

A spokesman for the Iraqi government, which started the war but has repeatedly expressed a willingness to negotiate an end to it, called the UN resolution a “positive” step. But the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Kho-

meini seems determined to continue the conflict until it overthrows Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Iran’s chief delegate to the UN, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, dismissed the resolution as a “vicious American diplomatic manoeuvre.” Despite the ceasefire resolution, fighting in the land war ground on last week. And on Tuesday Tehran radio reported that Iran had captured what it called three “Kuwaiti spy boats” in the Gulf. On Thursday—the day after the U.S.escorted tankers passed through the narrow Strait of Hormuz and entered the Gulf—Iranian ships steamed into the area to hold a naval exercise ominously code-named “Martyrdom.”

Iran also continued its diplomatic standoff with France. For more than a month French police surrounded the Iranian Embassy in Paris, seeking to question Iranian interpreter Wahid Gordji about terrorist bombings in Paris last year. Two weeks ago the French underscored their point by cutting off diplomatic relations with Tehran. In turn, a caller claiming to represent the Islamic Jihad (Holy War) told Western news agencies in Beirut that the pro-Iranian group would kill two French hostages in Lebanon. And Iranian officials, threatening to arrest French consul Jean-Paul Torri on espionage charges, sent Revolutionary Guards to encircle the French Embassy in Tehran, where Torri and 25 other embassy personnel remained at week’s end.

The stalemate signified the utter

failure of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac’s policy of courting Iran. While serving as a major arms supplier to Iraq, the Paris government has tried to win the release of French hostages by sending money to Tehran. But in the wake of the embassy row, France last week stepped up security around its ships and embassies worldwide. French officials were reportedly negotiating a formula that would have allowed Gordji to make a token appearance before a French magistrate as a prelude to a release of both sides’ envoys. But the French security service interrupted the diplomatic dance by announcing that it had turned up fur-

ther evidence against Gordji.

The Tehran-Paris confrontation also seemed to be behind the hijacking of an Air Afrique DC-10 airliner en route to Paris from Rome last Friday carrying 148 passengers, many of them French nationals, and 15 crew members. The hijacker, a 21-year-old Lebanese Shiite, who gave his name as Hussein Ali Mohammed Hariri, was identified as a member of the Iranianbacked Lebanese group Hizbollah (Party of God) and, according to the pilot, said that he had “a score to settle with the French.” After forcing the plane to land in Geneva, he demanded the release of two Lebanese brothers being held in West Germany on terrorism charges. The hijacking ended within hours when some crew members overwhelmed the gunman after he had fatally shot a French hostage. The

rest of the passengers, including one Canadian, teacher Walter Cholewa, escaped, some with minor injuries.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s response to the increased U.S. presence in the Gulf remained uncertain. The Iranians clearly have the means to attack the U.S. convoys. Their small high-speed vessels have made repeated hit-and-run raids on Iraqi tankers. Their Chinese-built Silkworm missiles, based onshore, are targeted primarily on the Strait of Hormuz. And their mining of the waters of the Gulf was apparent even before last week’s explosion; trying tó clear the way for the convoy, demolition experts from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had detonated eight mines in the deepwater channel to Kuwait’s main oil terminal at Al-Ahmadi.

According to U.S. experts, Iranian leaders are divided on whether to attack the American warships. The radical faction, led by spiritual leader Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, reportedly believes that massive assaults on the U.S. convoy could drive the Americans out of the Gulf and shatter Washington’s credibility. But sources in Washington said that Iran’s more pragmatic faction, led by parliamentary speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, I fears that a confrontait tion with U.S. ships £ could endanger Iran’s I own vital oil exports. standoff As a result, some ana-

lysts suggest that Iran’s response to the U.S. presence will not come in the Gulf. “They will back terror groups to attack American targets in Europe and the Middle East,” predicted Shahrough Akhavi, professor of government and international studies at the University of South Carolina. “Perhaps they will try to assassinate or kidnap an American ambassador. And it won’t end there: eventually they will spread that kind of terrorism right into the United States.” For officials in Washington, that is a chilling thought. But the Reagan administration seems intent on showing America’s flag—and its force—no matter what the perils.