WORLD

A battle for sea lanes

ROSS LAVER September 14 1987
WORLD

A battle for sea lanes

ROSS LAVER September 14 1987

A battle for sea lanes

THE PERSIAN GULF

Shipping executives in the United Arab Emirates port of Dubai did not have to look far last week for evidence of the latest flare-up in the Persian Gulf. From the office windows of major Gulf shipping agencies they could see the long line of newly damaged tankers and cargo vessels anchored just offshore, waiting for repair in Dubai’s busy drydocks. By week’s end, at least 20 such ships had been struck by Iranian and Iraqi forces in various parts of the Gulf in what shipping experts called the worst outbreak of fighting at sea since the Iran-Iraq war began in September, 1980. As Lloyd’s insurance market announced a 50-per-cent increase in war-risk premiums for vt ïsels plying the Gulf, a senior official of a Dubai-based salvage company commented, “The risk to merchant vessels in the region has increased tremendously.”

The renewed attacks occurred just as prospects for a settlement of the war had appeared to be improving. On July 20 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the conflict, which according to some estimates has already claimed more than one million lives. Declaring that it would accept the ceasefire if Iran did the same, Iraq refrained from air strikes against Iranian tankers and oil

installations. But Iran, while refusing to commit itself to a ceasefire, used the six-week lull in the so-called tanker war to boost its oil exports, providing more of the hard currency that the country needs to keep the war going. “Iran’s strategy is obvious—it is playing for time,” said a Western diplomat in the Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi. But Iraq’s patience finally snapped at the end of last month—scuttling hopes for a quick diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Ignoring a U.S. request for continued restraint, Iraq dispatched warplanes on a series of long-range bombing missions against Iranian oil terminals, offshore oilfields and tankers carrying Iranian crude. By the end of the week Baghdad claimed that its jets had hit 15 “naval targets,” the term it normally uses for tankers owned or chartered by Iran. None of the tankers was sunk. But an Iraqi jet fighter sank a Panamanian-registered supply ship and killed two crew members in a missile attack.

In Tehran, meanwhile, Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi pledged that his country would retaliate “blow for blow.” Operating in small, highspeed patrol boats, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards roamed freely through the southern half of the Gulf, attacking at least eight ships with machine-gun fire

and rocket-propelled grenades. None of the vessels was seriously damaged. Said a Dubai-based salvage expert: “The Iranians know that they are not going to sink a ship with a rocket-propelled grenade. Their best hope is to try to harass the shipping companies and frighten off some of the crews.” In that, they were at least partly successful: the 19-man Indian crew of the container ship Jebel Ali refused to go back to sea after their vessel was hit.

Last week two convoys of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers sailed through the Gulf, each protected by an escort of U.S. navy vessels and minesweep§ ing helicopters on a high ; state of alert. And deI spite all Iran’s earlier «#«0 promises to punish the £ Reagan administration for sending warships to the Gulf, the convoys proceeded without incident. Said one European diplomat: “The Iranians know that if they try anything funny, there is a good chance they will be blown out of the water. My gut reaction is that they really do not want a confrontation with the Americans.”

Still, the U.S. navy, with more than 20,000 men and 30 warships in the region, cannot afford to take any chances. Declared one U.S. official: “The only thing we can say with any degree of certainty about the Iranians is that they are unpredictable. Just because they have not done something so far, it does not mean that they will not do it in the future.”

At week’s end, as the war on civilian shipping raged in the Gulf, the Security Council moved to cool the situation by authorizing Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to embark on a peacemaking mission to Tehran and Baghdad this week. His mandate: to seek implementation of the Council’s call for a ceasefire. Pérez de Cuéllar said that Iran had indicated its willingness to discuss the resolution and that he would ask both sides to cease all hostilities during his visit. The peace mission was praised by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Vernon Walters, who called the unanimity of the 15member Council “unprecedented.” Declared Walters: “It gives the United Nations for the first time a chance at doing that for which it was created— to stop a war.”

ROSS LAVER in Dubai