MANAMA, Bahrain — Reluctant to take on the United States directly, Iran is waging what amounts to a terrorist war at sea in an attempt to undermine the effectiveness of the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, analysts say.
The strategy is risky but also effective. By planting mines at both ends of the gulf, and by stepping up its speedboat attacks on unescorted tankers, Iran is challenging the U.S. contention that its huge military buildup in the gulf can ensure freedom of navigation through the vital waterway, the analysts add.
The strategy has worked to the extent that shipping now flows less freely through the gulf than it did before the U.S. buildup began. Even Kuwait has reportedly expressed its concern to the United States that the 11 tankers it put under U.S. flag protection are moving out oil too slowly--far more slowly, in fact, than they did before the U.S. Navy began escorting them through the gulf last July.
The principal obstacles to the tanker convoys are the mines that Iran has sown in at least three areas of the gulf.
"Mines are a cheap, easy and pretty low-risk way for the Iranians to disrupt shipping," said a gulf-based maritime executive. "You have to catch the Iranians in the act to stop them, and that isn't easy."
With the aid of sophisticated surveillance, U.S. forces tracked and surprised an Iranian ship laying mines off the coast of Qatar in the central gulf last month. Two U.S. helicopters attacked the ship, the Iran Ajr, and later found nine mines aboard.
While there is no evidence that the Iranians have planted any more mines since the Sept. 21 attack on the Iran Ajr, few analysts think that this demonstration of American resolve will dissuade them from doing so in the future.
'Fear and Euphoria'
"When the Iran Ajr was hit, most people were afraid it would provoke an Iranian retaliation and that things would get much worse. When the Iranians didn't retaliate, most people said, 'Bravo, America, for standing up to Iran.' But now that both the fear and the euphoria have worn off, I think most people recognize that catching the Iranians in the act was probably the exception to the rule," one shipping source said.
"The gulf is pretty big and the Iranians have a lot of places from which to send out boats in the dead of night," he added.
Indeed, ever since the Iran Ajr incident, the U.S. Navy's resources have been stretched thin by a so-far unsuccessful effort to duplicate the feat. Military sources have conceded that the attempt to track all Iranian vessels that might be carrying mines is an all but hopeless task.
Seven Nations Involved
Twenty minesweepers from seven nations will soon be involved in the effort to keep the shipping lanes along the 550-mile-long gulf clear of mines. But finding mines once they have been laid is also a slow and resource-consuming job.
U.S. forces have been probing the waters off Qatar for the past two weeks for as many as nine mines believed to have been laid by the Iran Ajr before it was caught. So far, they've only found three.
French minesweepers operating just outside the gulf, off the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates, earlier this week found and detonated two mines believed to have been planted there last August. They are still searching for more and are not yet confident that the area is clear, French officials said.
There have also been reports of mines just inside the gulf, off the coast of Dubai, and hunting for them has tied up a fleet of British minesweepers for the past week.
"When you sow mines, you also sow a lot of uncertainty," one maritime source said. "You make shippers nervous and you force your adversary to tie up a lot of his resources in searching for them."
Along with laying mines, the Iranians have stepped up their speedboat attacks on unescorted oil tankers and have made a number of intimidating gestures towards the small Arab states on the western side of the gulf that support Iraq in its seven-year-old war with Iran.
The most recent of these occurred early Saturday, when a flotilla of more than 50 Iranian speedboats left their island bases in the northern gulf and began converging on Ras al Khafji, an offshore oil terminal run jointly by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The speedboats turned and dispersed before reaching the terminal, but the incident posed another challenge for the U.S. Navy, which quickly dispatched four ships to the northern end of the gulf at what was believed to be Saudi Arabia's request.
No Activity in Area
The area around Ras al Khafji was reported to be quiet Sunday, but several warships, including the La Salle, the U.S. command ship in the gulf, remained in the vicinity as a precaution.
It was still not clear, to officials here in Bahrain, whether the sudden Iranian thrust towards Ras al Khafji was meant to be an attack that was later aborted, a "scare tactic" or merely an attempt to test the scope and speed of the Saudi and U.S. military response.