Shipping executives are bracing for an expected new round of Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping amid concerns that Iran may be shifting to more deadly tactics. The concern follows two attacks in the past two days:
Yesterday, an Iranian gunboat attacked a Norwegian chemical tanker in the southern Gulf roughly 10 miles north of the United Arab Emirates port city of Sharjah.
On Tuesday, it was reported that an Iranian Air Force jet fired two missiles at a Liberian tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. The missiles missed, but one was said to have exploded some 50 feet from the tanker.
It has long been assumed that Iran has had more important uses for its precious few jet fighters (see right), particularly since its Revolutionary Guards, using sea-borne vessels, have managed to strike at tankers and other commercial vessels in the Gulf despite the massive intervention of Western warships.
Iran had not used its depleted US-built air force to attack a commercial ship in the Gulf since Dec. 1985. Last August, a US fighter pilot fired a missile at an Iranian jet-fighter near Bandar Abbas when the Iranian jet approached a US warship escort of re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The missile missed and the Iranian jet retreated.)
One shipping official said it was still unclear if Iran had, in fact, used a jet fighter to attack the Liberian tanker on Tuesday.
But, he added, ``If they have started to use planes again it is a new threat that will have to be considered. I would consider it a serious escalation.''
``These two recent attacks were expected and I expect another,'' says a Gulf-based shipping executive.
Shipping officials note that Iran has diligently retaliated in a tit-for-tat manner for Iraqi missile attacks against Iranian oil tankers since the outbreak of the ``tanker war'' in 1984.
A recent lull in Iranian counterattacks had shipping officials wondering if Iran was considering abandoning its harassing raids against commercial shipping to and from Iraq's Gulf Arab allies. Some analysts suggest that the Iranian forces decided to attempt a jet-fighter and missile attack to reestablish momentum in their Gulf raids.
In the past two weeks, Iraq has claimed a string of air attacks against Iranian tankers. Three of the attacks have been independently confirmed by shipping officials.
One apparent Iranian response to the Iraqi attacks came Jan. 31 when the Panamanian freighter ``Mare'' was hit and set ablaze in the central Gulf. But it now appears that the Iranians raided the Mare by mistake. The freighter was reported to have earlier sailed from the northern Iranian port of Bushehr.
It wasn't the first embarrassing miscalculation by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. A week earlier, the Norwegian LPG carrier ``Havpil'' was attacked by Iranian forces while en route to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Analysts speculate that such mistakes may have triggered the temporary lull in action by the Iranians as they tried to establish a better system to avoid miscalculations in picking future targets.
The recent pace of Iraqi attacks suggests that the Iraqis have no intention of letting up in their attempts to choke off Iranian oil exports.
The Iraqi strategy of targeting Iran's oil export facilities and tankers has so far failed to make a sizeable and sustained dent in the amount of oil Iran is able to sell. Many analysts believe that Iran's oil exports will continue to flow at significant enough levels to continue to fund the war effort unless Iraq is able to completely destroy Iran's main oil export terminal at Kharg Island.
Shipping officials here see no change in the same basic pattern that made 1987 the most costly and deadly year yet in the ongoing tanker war.
Said one shipping official: ``Everyone is trying to make the best of a bad situation.'' He adds, ``The bottom line is that the war has got to stop.''
Iran's clipped wings
Iran's Air Force once boasted 401 combat jets. Today it struggles to keep its 60 remaining US-made jets in the air.
US defense sources say that 50 of the jets are decade-old F-4s or F-5s. Fewer than a dozen are the more sophisticated F-14 Tomcats.
In order to counter Iraq's reported fleet of 500 serviceable jets, Iran has been scouring arms markets for spare parts and missiles. Those are available for the F-4s and F-5s, but parts for the Tomcats areonly available through the US, which is seeking an international arms embargo against Iran.
Iran apparently hopes that jets stationed at bases in Bushehr and Bandar Abbas can provide cover from Iraqi air attacks on Iran's shipping in the Gulf.