Iran's impounding of a dozen ships allegedly smuggling Iraqi oil reverses Tehran's long-standing practice of abetting the illegal trade. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the reasons for Tehran's turn-around are hard to pinpoint.
Prague, 13 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's actions over the last two weeks leave little doubt that it is serious about impeding Iraqi oil smuggling in the Gulf.
But so far, there is little clear indication of why Tehran is doing so, or how long it will continue.
This week, Iran announced that its Revolutionary Guards have detained 10 more oil tankers entering Iranian waters from the direction of Iraq. An Iranian official said the ships were carrying some 45,000 tons of oil in violation of UN sanctions against Iraq, which forbid the exporting of oil beyond the framework of the oil-for-food program. The mass impounding closely followed the detention of two other tankers earlier this month.
The actions have raised hopes in Washington that Tehran finally may be taking a tough position against the steady stream of third-country flagged vessels which smuggle oil from Iraq to buyers in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, the Horn of Africa, and even as far as Pakistan and India.
Earlier this month, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin welcomed the first seizures.
"If the reports are true, we are pleased to see that Iran is taking measures against this illegal traffic. We have previously expressed our concern about the high level of smuggling through the Persian Gulf. In the past, Iran has taken measures to halt the smuggling along its coast, and we hope this is an indication they intend to do so vigorously again."
If Iran is determined to obstruct the smuggling, it would be a sharp reversal of its previous policy. The United States has long accused Iran of allowing the tankers to sail the length of the Gulf in Iranian waters, thereby evading a multi-national patrol fleet charged with enforcing the sanctions on Iraq. U.S. officials say that the trade can net Baghdad up to $1 billion a year -- depending on oil prices -- but it also enriches Iran's security forces.
The commander of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which coordinates patrols in the Gulf against oil smugglers, estimated recently that Iran's Revolutionary Guards charge smugglers some $50 per metric ton in exchange for using Iranian waters. He predicted that the levy could net Iranian security forces some $500 million a year.
Iran has yet to explain why it now seems to be terminating this lucrative practice. Instead, it has repeated its longstanding claim that it has always enforced UN sanctions and now is merely continuing to do so.
Analysts in recent days have put forward a variety of possible reasons for the Iranian crackdown. One possible explanation is that the crackdown is Tehran's way of giving a nod of cooperation to Washington after a recent U.S. relaxation of sanctions on luxury Iranian goods. Another is that Iran may desire to maintain oil prices as high as possible in the wake of an OPEC decision to increase world supplies, and that it sees cutting down on smuggling as helping do that.
But no one can be absolutely certain what the answer is. The reason is that Iran and Iraq have such a complicated relationship that any of a number of tensions between them could equally be a motivation.
The countries have long been rivals for regional pre-eminence, and each is constantly seeking to gain leverage over the other in their contest. They waged an eight-year war from 1980 to 1988, and each side shelters the armed resistance movement of the other.
Iraq is believed to spend millions of dollars on providing facilities for the Mujaheddin, the main armed Iranian opposition group. The group has assassinated scores of officials as it has sought to bring Iran an ideology combining Marxism with Islamic ideas of a classless society.
A Mujaheddin mortar attack in Tehran two months ago narrowly missed President Mohammad Khatami's office, killing one person. Last month, another mortar shell hit a Tehran housing complex where several members of parliament live.
Iraq, in turn, blamed Iranian agents for a mortar attack in Baghdad last month which killed six people.
Recently, there have been signs Iraq may be stepping up its support of the Mujaheddin. Washington last month released a photograph of a 6 square-km military complex near Baghdad for the Mujaheddin which, it said, could hold some 3,000 to 5,000 members. The number of Mujaheddin fighters in Iraq is unknown.
For its part, Iran provides bases for the main armed Iraqi Shiite opposition to Baghdad, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The group is believed to command some 10,000 to 12,000 armed fighters and was largely recruited by Tehran from the ranks of Iraqi Shiite soldiers captured during the Iran-Iraq war. Its fighters move back and forth across Iran's marshy southern border with Iraq, which is mostly out of Baghdad control.
The recent Mujaheddin operations in Iran raise the possibility that Tehran's crackdown on oil smuggling could be intended to press Baghdad to rein in the group. But there are other possible issues involved, too, including the release of prisoners from the Iran-Iraq war.
In recent days, Tehran has unilaterally released nearly 2,000 Iraqi prisoners of war in an effort to pick up the pace of POW exchanges. The fate of thousands of POWs from the war continues to be unknown despite on-again off-again exchanges over the last decade. Baghdad says Iran is holding 9,000 of its soldiers, while Tehran says Iraq has more than 5,000 Iranians. The obstruction of Iraq's oil smuggling could now build pressure on Baghdad to respond with a mass POW release of its own.
But if impounding the oil tankers is intended as a message to Iraq, there has been no reply from Baghdad to date. Iraq has only said it has nothing to do with the tankers which have been seized. And it has welcomed back its POWs with n-o word that it is planning a similar release soon.