TWISTS AND TURNS IN THE GULF. Unescorted ships face heightened risks in Gulf. Renewed Iraqi raids could spur Iranian action
Tension in the Gulf increased by several notches yesterday. Among key developments in the region:
Iraq ended a 25-day hiatus in air raids on Iranian oil facilities, raising concerns of possible Iranian retaliation on Gulf shipping.
An American-chartered tanker with a load of Iranian crude oil struck a mine near the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman.
And the United States convoy of three reflagged Kuwaiti tankers was delayed at press time off the Saudi Arabian coast because of reports of a mine and Iranian naval activity in waters ahead.
The delay came despite comprehensive US efforts to ensure that the escort operation would proceed without a hitch. Special precautions included a secret convoy departure time, tanker radio silence, a warship scout in advance of the escorts, and a makeshift mine-clearing effort by helicopters dragging sonar devices.
Meanwhile, the growing complexity of US Navy efforts to protect reflagged tankers is raising questions about whether US and other military escorts will ultimately make the Gulf a safer place for all international shipping.
Shipping executives and others are concerned that US moves have increased regional tensions and broadened the threat of Iranian-deployed mines, missiles, and small boats.
They note that the vast majority of freighters and tankers calling on Arab ports in the Gulf do not qualify for a big-power naval escort. They remain vulnerable to the whims of the commanders of Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed at strategic points throughout the Gulf.
(In addition to the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France currently offer naval protection for their commercial ships.)
The continuing vulnerability of other Gulf vessels has been overshadowed by the intense attention given to the US escort of a handful of reflagged tankers and to the war of words between Washington and Tehran.
The threat to other ships was dramatically illustrated yesterday by the mine blast that ripped into the 274,347-ton Texaco Caribbean, damaging the tanker and causing an oil spill. There were no reported injuries on the tanker, which is currently under US charter but operates under the Panamanian flag.
The incident occurred off the United Arab Emirates city of Fujairah near a section of the Gulf of Oman used as a staging area for the US convoys and just three days after Iranian forces conducted major naval exercises in and near the Strait of Hormuz.
Shipping sources are worried that unescorted vessels will become the first casualties should the lull in Gulf attacks end with renewed Iraqi raids against Iranian economic targets in the Gulf.
Iraq was reported yesterday to have resumed attacks on Iranian land-based oil facilties with raids on oil fields at Marun, Gach Saran, Karanj, and Bibi Hakimeh, and on the refinery at Tabriz. It was unclear at press time whether Iran would retaliate with attacks in the Gulf.
Iran has vowed to refrain from direct attacks on Gulf shipping as long as Iraq refrains from attacks on Iranian targets in the Gulf. Iraq temporarily halted Gulf raids following the the UN Security Council's July 20 demand for a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war.
Some shipping sources are concerned that the US has stirred up a hornet's nest of Iranian fervor that could engulf the region if or when Iraq ends its voluntary moratorium. If that occurred, Iran would be more likely to focus its retaliation not on US warships or tankers but on unescorted shipping, which is an easier target, they point out.
``The US Navy will protect US flag ships, and the British and French will protect their ships as well,'' a shipping executive says. ``But who will protect the Panamanians, the Liberians, the Far Eastern ships? No one.''
Meanwhile, the captains of unescorted tankers and freighters are said to continue to take special precautions by sailing at night and detouring away from narrow channels that might have been mined hours earlier by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.