London — If an Iraqi MIG-21 tries to bomb a supertanker sailing into Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal, there's not a lot the captain can do. It takes 24 miles just for the lumbering ships to turn 180 degrees, and if an Iraqi pilot fired on one -- well, the Russians in orbit would see a small orange flame suddenly shoot up in the Persian Gulf.
But the risk nowadays is worth it. The Greek, Tuskish, Scandinavian, and East European ships dashing to Kharg Island are making a killing. Bogged down in a costly four- month-old war with neighbor Iraq, the Iranians need all the cash they can get.
So, according to petroleum-industry and shipping sources in London and the Mediterranean, the Iranians are offering a special bargain: $7 off the asking price of $37 for every barrel of crude that is lifted from the offshore Kharg Island terminal.
That means even after paying an extra insurance premium of 50 cents on every barrel to cover the tanker and its crew, the ship charterers are becoming richer than Onassis overnight. The price of $37 for Iranian light crude is already $5 cheaper than Kuwait or Qatar oil, so when that amount saved is added to the Kharg bargain, the charterer stands to gain a $7 million clear profit -- if the tanker isn't blown sky high.
One London shipping agent commented, "There's a high seas traffic jam around Kharg Island right now."
And the chances of another Iraqi bombing run? Much higher, said diplomatic sources, after Washington's exaggerated leak that since December Iran had boosted oil sales back to 1 million barrels per day. Experts in the major oil companies and spot-market dealers say the real amount is more like 700,000 to 900,000 barrels per day,
"You can expect the Iraqis to be poor sports about Kharg," said one London-based diplomat specializing in the Gulf conflict. "It's humiliating that -- although they've overrun [iran's] Khuzestan Province -- the Iraqi war damage is worse than Iran's."
It is more than humiliating. Steady oil revenues of $33 million a day from Kharg and two smaller offshore fields farther south, and from Sirri Island, might prove a decisive factor in Iran's battle against Iraq. Military experts say that in this long war of attrition, whoever runs out of money first may be the loser. Although Iraq started with massive oil revenues of $32 billion, no more cash is coming into its treasury; lethal Iranian air strikes on the Kirkuk oil fields have reduced the flow of crude from Iraq -- once an OPEC heavyweight -- to 10,000 barrels per day, a mere thimbleful.
Even with their national assets finally unfrozen by President Carter, the Iranians are counting on money from Kharg Island -- and the Iraqis know it.
When Iraq invaded Khuzestan last September, its fighter- bombers in the first week struck Kharg Island five times. But little damage was done. A few storage tanks wee blown up, but the vital pumping stations adn computer control terminal escaped untouched, according to industry experts who have scanned recent photos of this tiny manmade island sitting dangerously near the delta of the disputed Shatt al Arab waterway separatng Iran from Iraq.
Since then, said the petroleum expert, "The Iraq jets have been afraid to come back -- Kharg is ringed with anti- aircrafts missiles."
Also, in the first days of battle, Iran's powerful Navy, bought during the Shah's reign, sank all of Iraq's few fighting ships.
But soon the Iraqis may try again. And if so, the supertankers are in trouble.
Anyone in Washington who worked on the frantic hostage negotiations knows that when dealing with the Persians, it pays to read the small print. The same holds true on the special $7 discount for Kharg Island crude. Supertanker charterers examining the National Iranian Oil Company contract found the document contained a rattling surprise:
The voyage into Kharg Island would be as explosively perilous as the return trip loaded with crude. Apparently, the Iranian bargain only applies if tankers bring in to Kharg large quantities of highly flammable kerosene and jet fuel.
Since the Iraqis flattened the Abadan oil refinery early in the conflict, Iran has been desperate for refined petroleum products. Ayatollah Khomeini's regime even goes so far as to sell 40,000 barrels per day of crude to the Russians, whom Tehran accuses of arming the Iraqis, in exchange for these two scarce commodities. Other major buyers of Iranian crude are Spain, India, Yugoslavia, Romania, East Germany, and Scandinavia.
The National Iranian Oil Company also contacted the Japanese and British Petroleum, the two largest clients for Iranian crude before the Carter boycott, and was politely told to come back after the hostages' release.
As for the United States, Iran passed word in petroleum industry circles that with the release of their national assets in the US, the Tehran regime will happily resume exports of 800,000 barrels per day to major American companies.
But again the small print: In return, Iran wants the speedy delivery of spare oil field parts.