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Iraq: Mystery Surrounds Iran's About-Face On Oil Smuggling

  • Charles Recknagel

After briefly closing its waters to ships smuggling Iraqi oil, Iran is now again allowing the ships to pass. In the first of a two-part series on oil smuggling in the Gulf, RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel looks at Tehran's actions.

Prague, 21 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For years, boats smuggling Iraqi oil down the Gulf in violation of UN sanctions have routinely been able to use Iran's territorial waters to escape international patrol ships.

But for two months earlier this year, that pattern appeared about to change. Through April and May, Iran barred the boats from its coastal waters, and oil smuggling in the Gulf halted.

Then, three weeks ago, boats began trickling down the Iranian coast again. And the sea smuggling business -- which U.S. officials estimate brings Baghdad some $1 billion a year -- was back in operation.

Vice Admiral Charles Moore, commander of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, talked to RFE/RL by telephone about Iran's apparent policy change. Moore is the coordinator of the multinational force that patrols the Gulf to enforce UN sanctions on Iraq.

Moore says he initially was very encouraged when the Iranians closed off their waters. The action came after he briefed the UN on the oil smuggling and asked it to pressure Tehran to observe Iran's own stated policy of complying with the sanctions.

And he says that after Iran seized two ships in less than a week in early April, it appeared to be committed to action. Admiral Moore says:

"In April, we saw the Iranians terminate use of their waters by smugglers, and this caused a large backlog of smugglers to build up in the waterways of southern Iraq, principally the Shatt-al-Arab (a divided waterway between Iraq and Iran leading into the Gulf. Persian name: Arvand Rud). A couple of weeks ago there were about 150 ships in the Shatt-al-Arab, most of whom had been fully loaded with oil and were trying to find their way out. When faced with the inability to use Iranian waters and the prospect of encountering the multinational interception force in international waters, they chose to stay in Shatt-al-Arab."

But that situation soon changed. He continues:

"About two weeks ago, we saw the first of these vessels emerge and transit through Iranian waters. We have observed a few ships each day authorized to leave, from as low as two or three to as many as five or six. And so it is kind of a trickle out. We are all mystified by this."

Moore says that he and other U.S. officials had assumed that Iran closed off its waters because the UN briefing and press reports had made its leadership aware of the magnitude of the activity along its coast. And he says that barring the smugglers seemed to fit well with Iran's own strategy for the Gulf region. Moore:

"The use of their waters did not synchronize very well with what we observed to be their strategy in the region, which appears now to be a strategy more inclined toward cooperation, accommodation, a strategy which reaches out at least for the time being to the Gulf Cooperation Council states."

The Gulf Cooperation Council states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

But the resumption of the smuggling now raises a host of questions about Iran's position on the issue.

Moore says one question is whether the smuggling was permitted to resume by the Iranian government itself or by local authorities acting in their own interests.

The international interception force says that access to Iranian waters from Iraq is controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which maintains a large checkpoint at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab. The checkpoint levies a charge of $50 per ton of oil on the smugglers to enter Iranian waters. Those payoffs create a strong incentive at the local level to maintain the trade. Moore says:

"It could be that the individuals who are controlling the checkpoints where ships are authorized to pass into their waters, it could be that this is something local that is going on. This whole operation is driven by money, and the individuals who have the responsibility, I am sure, are susceptible to financial payoffs."

But Moore says the mixed signals from Iran also could be due to divisions within Iran's ruling circle. Groups like the hardline Revolutionary Guard are frequently at odds with moderates in the government, who responded positively to the UN request.

One sign there may be such divisions is the different roles played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps navy and the regular Iranian navy in the smuggling crackdown.

U.S. officials say all Iranian seizures of smugglers' boats were by the regular navy. Moore says:

"The few actions that we saw taken by Iranian military forces were taken by Iranian regular navy forces. We did see instances where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps navy had opportunities to police their waters and did that, they were clearly patrolling and appeared to be intent upon enforcing their territorial waters from the smugglers. But we never saw an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps naval vessel actually seize or intercept a smuggler. It is our view that those two organizations operate under separate chains of command until it reaches the minister of defense level, and we have always seen a difference in their operational pattern."

If the turning on and off of the smuggling routes along Iran's coast is due to political differences in Tehran, there is a chance Iran will make additional about-faces on the issue.

Meanwhile, the recent events clearly show that Iran alone holds the key to the oil smugglers' ability to operate profitably in the Gulf. When Iran from time to time has closed its waters to smuggling, the trade has virtually come to a standstill. When the waters open again, the trade starts again. Moore says:

"When they open their waters, we see smuggling surge upward and the multinational interception force, not being able to operate in Iranian waters, will only catch those few that either stumble out into international waters or consciously proceed through some short segments of international waters to save time or to make a break for one of the ports of call. So we are going to intercept very few when the Iranians provide a sanctuary for these smugglers."

The oil-smuggling ships -- which resell their cargoes in ports at Dubai, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa -- are safe from interception so long as they stay within Iran's offshore limit of 19 kilometers.

The interception force, comprised of 18 countries but dominated by U.S. ships, estimates it intercepts only 3 to 5 percent of the ships smuggling Iraqi oil when Iran allows safe passage down its coast.

Iran officially says it continues to support UN sanctions. After the news reports that smuggling had resumed through its waters, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran is trying to stop it to the best of its ability. But he said Tehran needs international assistance due to the costs of patrolling its 950 kilometer Gulf coastline.

(The second part of the two-part series looks at who are the oil smugglers and how Iraq helps coordinate their operations.)