NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Two weeks after the Iranians launched their "Dawn Eight" offensive against the Iraqis on Feb. 9, the advantage, in purely military terms, clearly lies with the attackers.
The Iranians gained surprise, despite Iraqi air superiority, by choosing to attack at the very southernmost point of the front, at the tip of the Al Faw Peninsula. Their initial assault took them over a formidable water obstacle to establish a bridgehead, which they have since held and expanded. The Iranians are now reinforcing this Al Faw bridgehead rapidly and in quantity over a causeway-cum-pontoon bridge flung across the swampy terrain of Abadan Island and the Shatt al Arab estuary--a considerable feat of military engineering. Iranian morale is high, as it always is when the attackers are on the advance.
The Iraqis can claim that they have prevented the bridgehead from being further enlarged. If they are able to besiege it, then the battle of bridges they are waging with their long-range artillery and air force could be decisive. Should the Iraqis destroy the many bridges crossed by the Iranian supply lines in this waterlogged area, they would then be able to grind down the isolated bridgehead. But the Iranians now have 30,000 men and artillery and armor in Iraq. The bridgehead has not only become a major challenge to the Iraqis but also a considerable distraction for them, drawing men and materiel from positions north of Basra, Iraq's second city--which is where the Iranians may launch their main attack in a right-hook movement to envelop Basra from the north.
In larger terms, the Iranians, by opening up a new front, have forced the Iraqis to extend still further their already-stretched resources, particularly in manpower. Casualties have been high in the toe-to-toe battles and the Iranians can afford casualties more than the Iraqis can. The course of the fighting in Dawn Eight has failed to illuminate the major mystery of the Gulf War: Why are the Iraqis still unable to convert their overwhelming air superiority into success on the battlefield.
The problem for the Iranians now is to convert their clear, but limited, tactical success into larger strategic gains.
Having advanced about 10 miles north from Al Faw, the Iranians are now about 30 miles from Basra. Any farther advance will become progressively more difficult. The Iranian advance would be moving into the long-prepared defensive positions of the Third Army, one of Iraq's toughest and most experienced fighting units.
The turbaned ayatollahs directing the Iranian war effort are not as concerned with territorial gains as with achieving military victories so humiliating that they would induce the Iraqis themselves to overthrow "the small satan," President Saddam Hussein ("the Great Satan" is still, of course, the United States, along with Israel).
The downfall of Hussein remains the major, almost the sole aim of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime. The capture of Basra and cutting the land link between Iraq and the gulf would be, singly or together, truly humiliating defeats, but they need not necessarily lead to the overthrow of Hussein. The population of Basra and its region is 80% Shia Muslim and from the very first days of Iran's "Islamic" revolution the Iranian Shias called on Iraqi co-religionists to rise against the predominantly Shia Muslim Iraqi government. They did not do so and Shia soldiers have fought hard against their Iranian fellow Shias.
This was partly due to the greater strength of Arab nationalism and Iraqi patriotism, but mainly because Iraqi Shias do not want to be ruled by fanatical and repressive ayatollahs.
An Iranian announcement claimed on the first day of the attack that by advancing towards Umm al Qasr, Iran had become "a new neighbor" of Kuwait. That sent ripples of alarm all down the gulf where many of the states have restive Shia minorities, or even, in the case of Bahrain, a Shia majority. But here again the bloody sectarian Shiism of the Khomeini regime has been its own worst advertisement.
The gulf Shias no more want Persian overlordship than the Iraqi Shias. So with surprising speed and unusual courage, all the gulf states roundly condemned the Iranian attack as flagrant anti-Arab aggression--a major political and propaganda gain for Iraq. Hence an Iranian military achievement could be politically counterproductive and would not be the humiliation that would bring down Hussein.
On the wider Arab scene, Iranian boasts about overrunning ever larger areas of Iraqi territory--the last figure was 315 square miles--have only served to convince all Arab governments that they are facing blatant Persian territorial expansionism--all, that is, except Syria, Iran's only Arab friend in the region, and Libya outside it. The longer the Iranian offensive continues, the more isolated will Syria become.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have tremendous leverage on Syria because Damascus is heavily dependent on large annual subsidies from both nations. Perhaps because of Arab pressure, the Syrian media has said little about Dawn Eight and has not indulged in the usual jeering at Iraqi defeats .
Meanwhile, as a vote of confidence in Iraq--and despite increasingly angry Iranian demands for their neutrality--Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the main financial supporters of Iraq's war effort, last week renewed their oil-swap agreement with Iraq. In Iraq's name, they sell 350,000 barrels of their oil every day. Thanks to this Arab generosity, Iraq is now earning revenue from the export of 1.7 million barrels of oil a day against the much-reduced Iranian volume of 800,000 barrels a day. Materially, Iraq is now in a better position than Iran to carry on a long war.