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Analysis : Gulf War Accelerates Into 8th Year : Outside Involvement Grows in Battle Between Iran, Iraq

September 20, 1987|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Iran-Iraq war is seven years old this month, and in Tehran they are throwing a birthday party of sorts.

Demonstrations are to be held in the Iranian capital and other cities from Monday to Sunday to commemorate battles and various other events associated with the war.

One of the longest running conventional conflicts of this century, the war has already claimed well over 1 million casualties, destroyed or damaged more than 350 commercial vessels in tit-for-tat shipping attacks and all but ruined the economies of two of the most powerful nations in the Persian Gulf region.

Moreover, as it careens into its eighth year, the war increasingly seems, in one diplomat's words, "like a car about to spin out of control." Despite current efforts by the U.N. Security Council to apply a diplomatic brake, the conflict is accelerating at a pace that most would have deemed unimaginable only a year ago.

The growing presence in the Persian Gulf of warships from the United States and several European nations, the bloody clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces in the holy city of Mecca in July and Iraq's resumption of its air strikes against Iranian economic targets have each raised the likelihood of outside involvement, with all the concomitant risks this entails.

Against this tense backdrop, America looks increasingly like it has stumbled into the wrong movie in the Persian Gulf. For this is not a "Top Gun" movie, and there are no good guys and bad guys--only bad guys and worse ones who both seem intent on trying to turn the growing U.S. involvement in the Gulf towards their own ends.

In the middle of all this, the Iranians have found cause to celebrate.

Tuesday, which by Iran's reckoning marks the anniversary of the war, is "Military Readiness Day." This is to be followed by "War and School Day," "Sacrifice Day," and "Teach Iraq a Lesson Day," among other theme-for-a-day celebrations.

Throughout it all, there will be parades and demonstrations, speeches and picture exhibits and, on the seventh and climactic day, a "grand dispatch" of tens of thousands of new recruits to the war fronts, according to an announcement by Tehran's War Information Office.

Clearly, this is not at all what Iraq had in mind when, in response to a string of provocative border incidents and Iranian calls for the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, it sent its army across the Iranian frontier in September, 1980, to "teach a lesson" to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's young Islamic revolutionary government.

The world appeared to care little, back in those days, about who started the war. Until Khomeini came along, it was Saddam Hussein who, in regional terms, had the reputation of being the meanest bully on the block. Indeed, until Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979, it was to Iran that many of the small Arab states on the western shore of the gulf looked to check what was then perceived as the Iraqi menace. The only pity, as Henry A. Kissinger noted at the time in a since oft-quoted remark, was that both sides couldn't lose.

All that soon began to change, however.

Underestimating Iranian tenacity as well as being overconfident of their own abilities, the Iraqis allowed the tide of the war to turn. Soon they were on the run, retreating first to their own border and then beyond it as the Iranians began to capture Iraqi territory with their grisly, World War I-style "human wave" offensives.

Unable to win the war on the ground, Iraq changed tactics and launched the so-called "tanker war" in 1983, using its superior air power to attack Iranian oil fields, offshore loading facilities and ships transporting Iranian oil.

The Iraqis were, by this time, less concerned with winning the war than with not losing it, and their new aim was to compel Iran to accept a truce by destroying its ability to finance further offensives.

This strategy relied on using Iraq's greatest strength against Iran's worst weakness. Iran's only means of exporting oil to earn the hard currency it needs to buy weapons is via the Persian Gulf shipping route. Iraq does not share this vulnerability, however. It exports all its oil via pipelines through Saudi Arabia and Turkey and receives most of its imports via overland routes through Kuwait.

Unable to respond in kind, the Iranians began attacking ships belonging to Baghdad's allies, especially Kuwait, which serves as the main transit point for arms to Iraq. However, with no air force to speak of, the Iranian attacks, by Revolutionary Guards firing rockets and machine guns from speedboats, were largely ineffective. They killed a number of crewmen and pushed up insurance premiums in the gulf but did little to stop oil from reaching the West.

Then came the catalyst that suddenly changed everything, drew in the superpowers and introduced a whole new set of risks into what until then had still been a relatively contained crisis.

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