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War Nerves

September 07, 1986

American officials are becoming more concerned and the states of the western Persian Gulf are showing increasing twinges of nervousness as the war between Iran and Iraq approaches the dawn of its seventh year. Behind this worry is the chance that the stalemate in the conflict may soon be broken if, as signs strongly indicate, Iran launches the major new offensive for which it has long been preparing. No one expects that another mass assault will produce a conclusive Iranian victory. But Iran might well be capable of making the kind of gains on the ground that would not only further sap the morale of Iraq but also send political shock waves throughout the region.

Until now, Iran has not been able to sustain its repeated offensives, even with its 3-1 superiority in manpower and despite the chilling zeal displayed by its young Revolutionary Guards, tens of thousands of whom have willingly marched to their deaths on the battlefield. Iran's past offensives have run out of steam largely because of shortages in equipment and munitions. Lately, though, Iran has improved its arms relationships with a number of countries, and is now obtaining the weapons and supplies that could make significant gains possible.

The United States has been working hard to influence Iran's arms suppliers to halt their commerce, but success has been limited by a lack of leverage with most of the countries that are involved.

China has lately become a major supplier, possibly providing among other things as many as 50 jet fighters, although it officially denies such a role. Unofficially, however, the Chinese concede the relationship--their rationale being that Iran, like China, is aiding the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan and that a strong Iran is a bulwark against Soviet intrusion into the Persian Gulf area. Other major sources of weapons for Iran include North Korea, whose likeliest motive is the chance to earn hard cash, Libya and Syria, with whom the United States has no leverage at all, and the Western European black market, which is always hard to control.

Western military analysts have long puzzled over Iraq's poor battlefield performance--notably its failure to take full advantage of a considerable superiority in combat aircraft, artillery and tanks. Iraq prefers to limit itself largely to defensive action. The major reason seems to be that it is desperate to try to minimize its combat losses. Iran, in contrast, is willing to expend lives profligately. Despite its huge casualties, which include an estimated quarter-million dead, Iran seems to have no shortage of willing combat volunteers. Nor does it face the problem of sagging morale both in its armed forces and on the home front that Iraq apparently faces.

Further Iranian gains on the battlefield could lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's dictator, and open the way to the installation of a more accommodating regime in Baghdad. If that happens, the other Persian Gulf states--none of them either individually or collectively a military match for Iran, and all of them exposed to its subversion--would have little choice but to accept Iran's regional political dominance. Fully 60% of the world's oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf area. That is what makes the stakes in this remote and enormously costly conflict so high. That is why the United States, officially neutral, is showing mounting concern about Iran's improving capabilities after six years of fighting.

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