For the second time in less than two months, the Iraqi Air Force has mounted a successful raid on Iran's main oil terminal on Kharg Island. A European oil company executive in Brussels said yesterday that Kharg's main oil-loading jetty, which lies on the West of the island, was hit last Thursday and is apparently out of order. The executive got his information from company sailors in the Gulf.
Western diplomats contacted in Tehran say last Thursday's attack was probably the most devastating attack by Iraq on Iranian oil facilities since the war began five years ago.
A spokesman for Lloyd's of London said it would take several days before the full extent of the damage could be assessed. After the attack flames and billows of smoke could be seen from many miles away, the spokesman added.
Iranian authorities have provided no details on the damage. However, the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, confirmed that a North Korean tanker that was berthed at Kharg's main jetty was hit during the raid, killing two sailors.
An Iranian source contacted in Tehran says that loading piers can generally be repaired very quickly. The source says Iraq badly damaged the jetty on eastern Kharg Aug. 15 and that it was fixed in a few days. Western oil companies confirm that the Iranians are now exporting small amounts of oil through that small jetty.
More than 90 percent of Iran's foreign exchange comes from oil sales, which until the latest attack ran at 1.5 million barrels a day. Iran reacted to the Iraqi raid on Sunday, when President Ali Khamenei stated Iran's oft-repeated threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz if Iran's oil exports are cut off. All countries bordering the Persian Gulf export the bulk of their oil through the strait.
Western military experts say they believe the Iranian fleet is not capable of carrying out its threat. These experts generally believe that Iran would try to mine the strait if it decided to make good on its threat. But, they say, the strait is too broad and too deep to be mined.
Any attempt by the Iranians to close the strait, the experts add, would immediately be countered by American, French, and British warships stationed in the Indian Ocean.
The closure of the strait would apparently have no immediate effect on industrial nations' supplies. Since 1983, Saudi Arabia has chartered large crude carriers to store oil outside the Gulf.
The Saudis are believed to have more than 40 million barrels in floating storage and another 15 million in land storage at Rotterdam and in the Caribbean. In case of crisis the Saudis would be able to continue their oil exports at a normal pace for several weeks.
Iranians have thus far responded to repeated Iraqi attacks on Kharg by launching limited ground offensives, apparently with some success. Iran has also mounted air raids on Iraqi economic targets, but no independent source has been able to assess their efficiency thus far. Last June the Iranians also announced their intention to prevent the Iraqi government from importing arms through its Arab allies' ports in the Gulf.
Since then, the Iranian Navy has intercepted several ships heading for Kuwaiti ports. On Sunday the Danish registered Arnold Maersk was stopped and forced to dock in an unidentified Iranian port. On Monday the Iranian News Agency announced that the ships' cargo of weapons was being confiscated and that the ship and its crew would be freed soon. 5 Western military attach'es in Tehran say Iraq continues to enjoy undeniable air superiority and that Iranian F-4 and F-5 fighter bombers are outdated. The Iraqis have recently taken delivery of several highly sophisticated Soviet-made MIG 25s and French-made Mirage F-1s. Last Thursday's attack is believed to have been carried out by low-flying Mirage F-1s equipped with sea-skimming Exocet missiles.
A report recently published in the French weekly Le Figaro suggested that Iraqi Mirages are maintained by French technicians. French officers are even reported to be involved in the planning of Iraqi air raids.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.