The escalation of the Iran-Iraq war is making the azure waters around Iran even more dangerous. Within the past few months, attacks on ships sailing in the Persian Gulf have increased sharply. At the same time casualties are mounting. According to the shipping publication Lloyd's List, more than 50 seamen have been killed so far this year compared with 50 over the last five years.
This heightened violence was one of the reasons the United Kingdom last week announced plans to move ships into the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. ``If British ships or people get into difficulty, distress, or disaster, the Royal Navy will be somewhere nearby,'' said George Younger, Britain's defense secretary.
``It's a lot worse than most people realize,'' says Barry Moore, an executive with MarData, part of Lloyd's Registery of Shipping. One New York tanker broker says, ``We're losing a ship a week as war casualties.'' Last week three ships were attacked.
The violence is spreading farther down the Gulf. Last week, Iraqi warplanes, or possibly long-range helicopters, attacked an Iranian oil-loading facility on the Larak Islands. ``Iraq has proved it can attack anywhere in the Gulf,'' says Chris Brown-Humes, a reporter with Lloyd's List in London.
The increased range of Iraqi jets has increased the number of attacks on ships. According to Lloyd's, there have been 97 attacks on cargo or oil-bearing vessels through September with 17 total losses. There have been 259 attacks through the whole war.
Reflecting this pickup in the level of violence, insurance premiums have soared. According to Lloyd's List, premiums for a six-month charter have now reached 60 percent of the value of a vessel operating in those waters.
To try to counter these rising insurance rates, the Iranians have enacted their own insurance plan, guaranteed by a London bank. The Iranians will insure hulls for only 15 percent of their value, says a London ship broker who does a lot of business with Iran. During the last two months, he reports, many tanker owners have taken the Iranian insurance.
Iran's main nonoil port, Bandar Khomeini, is also difficult and dangerous to reach. According to a London ship broker, convoys of Iranian-owned vessels periodically try to break out of the port. The blockage of the port, the broker says, ``has caused them a lot of problems with their internal lines of distribution.'' Instead, ships use the port Bandar Abbas, from which they transport their imports of grains and New Zealand lamb.
Iraq has also had problems. According to Lloyd's, 31 ships are caught in the Shatt al Arab waterway near Basrah. With that port dangerous to enter, goods are transported through Kuwait and other Gulf states.
Ironically, some industry sources say the war is helping the shipping industry as a whole because it is removing some tonnage from the total commercial fleet. ``It's whittled down the number of ships,'' says Mr. Moore. A New York tanker broker says the market is so glutted that the war is only of marginal help, however.
The Iranians themselves have recently become major buyers of tankers, acquiring 10 Very Large Crude Carriers and a number of Ultra Large Crude Carriers. These tankers are used in the shuttle service between Kharg Island, the main Iranian oil terminal, and Sirri Island, or the Larak Islands, where tank farms store the oil for shipment.
Since Kharg Island is closer to Iraq, the Iranians have tried to lessen the risk to tankers by moving the oil to these islands, which are closer to the mouth of the Gulf and farther from Iraq.
As the Iran-Iraq conflict enters its sixth year, shippers are pondering the future. If the Iranians, newly armed with US weapons, were to mount a final successful attack, the war could end quickly. If that happens, one broker believes, ``there will be an expansion of trade while the Iranians rebuild their economy.''