Iraqi raids fail to disrupt flow of Iran's oil exports

Contrary to Iraq's claims, relentless Iraqi air raids against Iran's main oil loading terminal, Kharg Island, have failed to disrupt Iranian oil exports seriously. An Iranian official contacted in Tehran says that Iran remains capable of exporting up to 4 million barrels of oil a day. But, he says, Iran is limiting its sales to 1.6 million barrels per day. This limit is in line with the production and sales quotas laid down by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

This figure of 1.6 million is confirmed by a senior European oil company executive here. The National Iranian Oil Company, the executive says, exports 1.4 million barrels daily through Kharg Island and 200,000 barrels through other facilities. This has been the daily average for the last two years. A spokesman for Lloyd's insurers in London and a Dutch shipping agent say that Kharg Island's terminals remain operational.

European oil industry experts attribute Iraq's failure to stop the flow of Iranian oil to the inefficiency of most Iraqi raids against Kharg.

``Iraqi pilots generally don't have guts to come close to the island which is defended by Hawk missiles,'' says an Israeli diplomat. ``They often strike from far away and miss their target.''

Western intelligence sources agree that out of more than 30 Iraqi attacks against Kharg in the past 10 weeks, only two have been effective. On Aug. 15, eight of Iraq's French-made Mirage jets fired sophisticated laser-guided missiles that damaged the jetty on the east of the island. On Sept. 19 Kharg's west pier, which can accommodate very large crude carriers, was hit, bringing loading activities off the island to a complete standstill.

But the damages suffered in these two raids may have been overestimated, says an expert with a European oil company. Iran stopped exporting oil through Kharg for five days after September's raid because of a heavy death toll, this expert says. But some of the loading berths remained operational.

``Don't forget that Kharg's installations were built in the '70s to export more than 6 million barrels per day,'' the expert says. ``Even if two thirds of the berths were destroyed, the Iranians could carry on their sales at the present pace.''

This expert also says that since the beginning of the war the Iranians have been incredibly quick at fixing damaged oil installations, which is apparently not a very difficult job. ``A loading jetty is nothing more than an assemblage of pipes. Fixing it is just plumbing work,'' he says. ``The only way to destroy a jetty for good is to blast each of its pillars. . . .''

Iran has reportedly bought two mooring buoys that will be positioned between Kharg and the mainland. Mooring buoys are mobile crude oil-loading facilities that are connected to flexible oil pipes. They could be used in case of a complete destruction of Kharg Island. The National Iranian Oil Company is said to be building a pipeline that will pump its oil to a new terminal near the mouth of the Gulf, out of the range of Iraqi aircraft.

Iran remains firm about not negotiating with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for an end to the five-year-old war. But Iran has been trying to break out of its international diplomatic isolation. At the recent United Nations meeting, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vellayati held bilateral meetings with several of his counterparts. One aim was to find countries to supply Iran with the sophisticated military hardware it badly needs.

Western diplomats in Peking said recently that China was ready to sell ground-to-ground missiles to Iran. China and Iran later denied this.

A recent meeting between Iraq and Syria, Iran's main Arab ally, left Iran feeling more isolated than ever. Syrian assurances of continuing support did not dissuade the Iranian government from interrupting its shipments of free crude oil to Syria.

Iranian diplomats in Europe say Iran plans no large ground offensive in the near future. Iranian fighters will continue to advance step by step in Iraqi territory, the diplomats say.

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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