WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) on Wednesday urged both President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III to freeze the shipment of a scarce rocket fuel component allegedly sought by Iran. He called it "a matter of grave national concern" and "extreme urgency."
In joint letters, Aspin and another member of the military panel, Rep. James H. Bilbray (D-Nev.), expressed alarm that a federal judge in Houston may soon release 286,000 pounds of ammonium perchlorate to a Tampa shipper.
The chemical, used as an oxidizer in fuel for rockets and missiles, was seized last year by the U.S. Customs Service when it was being transferred from an American ship to an Iranian freighter in the Dutch port of Rotterdam.
"Top Air Force officials have expressed reservations that securing adequate supplies of (the chemical) would assist the (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini regime in refueling its Soviet rockets and its own short-range surface-to-surface missiles," the letters said. "In the past, the Khomeini regime has used similar missiles to target cities" in its war with Iraq.
The letters said that the "sizable shipment" is "desperately needed for domestic use" because one of the two U.S. producers of the chemical, Pacific Engineering & Production Co. of Henderson, Nev., was destroyed in an explosion last May.
The sole remaining producer, Kerr-McGee Corp., has offered to buy the impounded shipment, Aspin and Bilbray said. U.S. military and space programs require an estimated 60 million pounds of ammonium perchlorate each year, they added.
Seized by Customs
Girindus Corp. of Tampa bought 286,000 pounds of the chemical from Pacific Engineering & Production in January, 1988, and shipped it from Houston to Europe. The bill of lading showed that it was bound for a buyer in Basel, Switzerland. About a month later, however, Dutch authorities and the Customs Service seized the shipment as it was being loaded on an Iranian freighter.
Girindus sued to get it back. Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake ruled that the shipment had been illegally seized. He said that the government had offered no evidence of any diversion to Iran.
But the judge set another hearing for Monday after the Customs Service filed papers demanding that the shipment be forfeited to the government on grounds that the listed destination was false.
Customs Commissioner William von Raab has been unsuccessful in trying to get the State Department to withdraw an export license that was issued for the shipment last year. He also has encountered resistance from the Justice Department in his efforts to block the shipment on national security grounds. Officials at State and Justice have declined to explain their stands.
Robert K. Givens, a Houston attorney representing Girindus, has denied that the firm was selling the chemical to Iran. He suggested that the intended buyer was connected to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe but would not give any details.