Shipping sources in London said reports that Iran has been laying mines in shipping lanes off Kuwait have had no effect thus far on chartering activity or the rates paid for tankers lifting oil out of the upper Persian Gulf.
Published reports here Thursday quoted an unnamed senior official in the Reagan administration as saying Iran has placed mines in channels leading to Kuwait's primary oil port at Ahmadi.Rumors to that effect have been rampant the past few days at London's Baltic Exchange, a center of ship chartering activity. But there has been no confirmation of the rumors and no feeling of alarm at the exchange, according to a London shipping expert.
Officials with the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense similarly said Thursday they'd seen no evidence to substantiate the reports.
It's news to us, added an official at the Embassy of Kuwait in Washington.
Maj. Larry Icenogle, a Defense Department spokesman, raised the possibility that mines reportedly sighted by marine salvage crews working off Kuwait were ones that had broken away from moorings in the war zone off Iraq, at the very northern end of the gulf. Mines have broken loose and drifted down the gulf before, he said.
Nonetheless, the department was taking the rumors seriously and attempting to find out exactly what had been seen. If the rumors prove correct, he said, it underscores the threat Iran poses to everyone in the gulf.
The major said the United States does not have any mine sweepers in its Middle East fleet, but that doesn't mean there's no mine-sweeping capability there.
He noted that Saudi Arabia has four U.S.-built mine sweepers in its navy and that British and French forces are thought to have sweepers in or near the region.
The Soviet Union also has at least three mine sweepers in the gulf. It put them there after a Soviet tanker on charter to Kuwait hit a mine just outside Kuwaiti waters last month.
The possibility of mines in Kuwaiti waters adds another dimension to the debate over the Reagan administration's plan to put 11 Kuwaiti tankers into the U.S. ship registry and escort them in and out of the gulf with U.S. warships.
The plan is under attack in Congress, which may attempt to block the re- flagging effort currently in the works.
Warren Nelson, a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, said committee chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis. has cautioned the Navy several times about the possibility that Iran might mine the waters off Kuwait.
The congressman believes Iran will choose to retaliate against the U.S. move to protect Kuwaiti tankers in a way that leaves no fingerprints, Mr. Nelson said.
Rather than launch a missile attack against U.S.-flag vessels, Iran's more likely to attempt terrorist attacks against Americans overseas or secretly drop mines in the paths of ships moving in and out of Kuwaiti waters, he explained.