Iraq to be seen smuggling oil to Iran

Feb 11, 1997 01:00 AM

Skirting the shoals of Iran's Persian Gulf coast, tankers are smuggling tens of thousands of tons of fuel oil out of Iraq into Iran in violation of UN sanctions, a US admiral said recently. The embargo busters and their Iranian protectors have had two confrontations with the Navy in the past two weeks. In one unpublicized showdown, an unidentified tugboat rammed a US frigate. "Our indications are that this is a rather sophisticated effort, centrally controlled within Iran," Vice Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of the US 5th Fleet, told. The "Iran connection" is one visible sign of co-operation between the two former enemies in trying to foil American efforts to enforce UN trade sanctions on Iraq. "A protection fee is paid to the Iranians that guarantees them safe passage through territorial waters," the admiral said. He said an Iranian Revolutionary Guard maritime station at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that separates Iran and Iraq appeared to be the "gatekeeper" for the illicit shipments. Even businessmen in one US-allied nation profit from the oil smuggling. Fargo said some smuggled diesel oil eventually is offloaded in the United Arab Emirates in the southern Persian Gulf. He said US officials are "working very closely with the UAE government" to ensure enforcement in UAE waters. The Emirates says it does not have the capability to monitor its entire lengthy coast for smugglers. As legitimate shipments have begun to leave Iraqi ports, the diesel smugglers have stepped up their work as well. "Through our reconnaissance capabilities" _ satellites and US aircraft _ "we can image these guys as they're loading up," Fargo said. The diesel smuggling "has increased to 60,000 metric tons per month, due to the fact that there's a significant profit to be made," he said. After picking up the fuel at ports on the Shatt, the ships _ not only small tankers, but other vessels that flood their ballast tanks and compartments with the cargo _ hug the Iranian coast as they steam southward. Fargo said some 30 vessels have been identified on the "Iran connection" run, one having traversed the route at least nine times. Both international law and treacherous coastal shoals keep the deep-hulled US destroyers on sanctions patrol out of Iran's 12-mile-wide territorial waters. A watch officer aboard the destroyer USS Cushing, steaming in the northern Gulf, said crew members can detect the boats but cannot go after them. On Feb. 4, Iran's interest in the trade became clear to destroyer crews when the USS Nicholson cut off and boarded a diesel smuggler in international waters, and an Iranian patrol boat sped to the scene. When the Cushing arrived to back up the Nicholson, the Iranian craft, armed with anti-ship missiles, began circling the US warships. Their crews took up defensive positions on deck. "It was hairy," a young Cushing officer recounted. "One little Iranian gunboat had two $ 800 million destroyers totally tied up." The incident ended peacefully and the destroyers impounded the smuggler vessel after the Iranian boat left. A week earlier, on Jan. 26, the USS Reid was not so lucky. The frigate, in international waters, intercepted a tug towing a barge laden with illicit fuel out of Iraq. The tug cut the barge loose, rammed the US warship twice and then raced to an Iranian safe haven. No one was injured aboard the Reid, but the ship sustained a 20-inch crack on its starboard bow, above the water line, and required repairs. The barge was impounded.

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