Kharg Island: Iran's vital Gulf oil tap

Iran's Kharg Island, a tiny but absolutely crucial oil supply junction in the Gulf, is one focus of concern as the world contemplates two current possibilities:

1. Stepped-up United States economic sanctions against Iran, possibly including a blockade.

2. A total breakdown of relations between Iraq and Iran, leading perhaps to outright war.

Kharg Island once was a pirate lair, later a Dutch and Portuguese mercantile distribution center, and long a center for fishing and pearling. But today Kharg is the sole conduit for exporting 90-plus percent of Iran's oil.

The island is Iran's fragile economic lifeline. And it symbolizes the similar fragility of the other oil installations in the Gulf -- not least those of neighboring Iraq.

Kharg Island, its links to the Iran mainland, and the key pumping station at Gureh are discomfortingly vulnerable to attack or sabotage. whether precipitated by some US or Iraqi action or by local insurrection.

Crammed onto the southern third of Kharg are storage tanks for more than 15 million barrels of crude oil and volatile products from a processing facility. The oil tanks cluster on bluffs overlooking loading jetties. Below, to the east and southeast, are control facilities and two small petrochemical plants.

A salvo of rockets, or a few strategically situated explosive charges, could turn Kharg within minutes into an inferno. Given the cramped siting, the damage would be difficult, if no impossible, to control.

Repairs could stretch over months, possibly as long as a year, during which Iran's exports (currently less than 2 million barrels per day but potentially 5. 5 million b.p.d.) would be lost to the global oil market.

Six submarine pipelines run to the mainland at Ganaveh -- one 42-, one 52-, and four 30-inch lines. These could be broached easily by well-briefed frogmen, stray mines, or by damage at either end where the lines leave the water. Repair , too, could be lengthy, and the mess monumental.

A third critical link is the large and exposed pumping station at Gurreh and the pipeline junctions at Gavaneh. The Gurreh station handles the entire throughput. Is could be damaged from the sea or overrun from the rugged mountains to its rear. The mountains are ideally suited and frequently used as bases for guerrilla attacks.

Beyond these three sensitive nodal points, a tracery of trunk lines, secondary pipelines, and gathering lines reaches out to wells scatv tered through the more remote parts of Khuzestan, collecting the maximum of 6 million barrels per day that Iran might produce.

The secondly and tertiary lines are less sensitive because each carries a smaller percentage of the oil. They also are commensurately more vulnerable to sabotage by local guerrillas. Indeed, perhaps as dozen such incidents already have been reported.

The gas-oil separating plants, scattered about and serving sets of wells (whose flares at night render the countryside like a witches' sabbath) are particularly easy to destroy and difficult to repair, especially when crews might have to fend off snipers.

Fighting around Kharg itself, Ganaveh, or Gurreh could lead inadvertently to serious destruction and an oil shortfall.

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