WORLD

War games in the Gulf

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 17 1987
WORLD

War games in the Gulf

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 17 1987

War games in the Gulf

WORLD

From the sound of anti-aircraft fire along the Iranian shore of the Persian Gulf to the sight of U.S. fighter planes strafing the northern desert coast of Somalia, the preparations for war were evident last week. In a measure aimed at demonstrating American military readiness in the region, U.S. marines and carrier-based jets staged a mock invasion of Somalia near the southern entrance to the Red Sea. At the same time, as U.S. warships steamed down the Gulf outside Iran’s 12-mile limit, Iran expanded a naval exercise—code-named “Martyrdom”—that featured anti-aircraft gunnery practice and the deployment of volunteers in speedboats laden with explosives. The volunteers, said staterun Tehran radio, were practising “approaching U.S. warships in their fast boats and dealing deadly blows.” Ominously, both the United States and Iran seemed prepared to move beyond their long-standing war of words. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan’s

decision last month to protect Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf from attack has resulted in one of the largest deployments of U.S. troops anywhere since the Vietnam War. By the end of the month more than two dozen U.S. combat ships carrying about 15,000 men will be present in the Gulf—a sharp increase from the total of seven American warships three months ago. As well, an unknown number of Soviet, British and French warships are also in the Gulf. With that military buildup raising the stakes in the volatile region, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov visited Tehran last week in an attempt to improve relations with Iran, one of the world’s largest oil producers.

At the same time, ill-feeling between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the July 31 riots and the deaths of 275 Iranian Moslems in the holy city of Mecca has raised fears that Tehran will attempt to undermine the ruling royal family of that Islamic country. And there is speculation that after recently suffer-

ing several setbacks in its seven-yearold war with Iraq, Iran is falling increasingly under the control of hardline Islamic fundamentalists prepared to wage war at any cost. Declared Shireen Hunter, a former Iranian diplomat now associated with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies: “It could even be that if the Iranians are desperate, they would try to bring the whole house down with them.”

Iran’s aggressive stance and angry rhetoric is in sharp divergence from its more moderate approach to global politics of the past three years. During that time Iranian government officials secretly arranged arms purchases from the United States and Israel— countries they have often vilified as enemies—and made conciliatory overtures to neighboring Arab states. But some Western analysts speculate that since news of the arms purchases became public last November, embarrassed Iranian government officials have resumed public attacks on the

United States as a means of regaining the esteem of their followers. Recent public statements by Iranian politicians have once again featured the stinging anti-American polemics that characterized early speeches by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after he took power in 1979. Khomeini said last week that the Mecca dead were the “target of assault and impudence of the mercenaries of the archSatan, that is the criminal America.” Declared U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger: “We simply cannot deal with people like that.”

Despite the aggressive posturing of Iranian officials against Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United States, Western analysts are divided over whether Iran will retaliate. In the wake of threats by one Iranian leader to “uproot the Saudi rulers,” a Western diplomat in Washington said that the Saudis had expressed “grave caution and fear” of Iran, which with its 49 million people has five times the population of Saudi Arabia. But although Iran publicly blamed both the United States and the Saudis for the deaths of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca —the Saudis say radical Iranian pilgrims fomented the riots that killed more than 400 people in

all—some analysts point to Tehran’s midweek decision to send an investigative panel to Saudi Arabia as a sign that it would not retaliate aggressively. Declared Prof. Mordechai Abir of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University: “When you want to fight, you do not send delegations. Iran felt compelled to act, but is limiting itself to words.”

Still, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman threatened to confront Saudi Arabia “with force” later in the week, after he accused the Saudis of delaying the return of wounded victims. American officials say that Iran, with its resources drained by the lengthy war with Iraq, will likely reject full-scale military action in favor of either terrorism or < other covert measures. One o possible step would be for § Iran—whose population is z largely Shiite, a breakaway 5 Islamic sect—is to enlist the help of other Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, Shiites form about 15 per cent of the 10.8-million population and are concentrated in the eastern province, the site of the country’s giant oilfields.

U.S. officials also acknowledged worries about Iranian terrorism. A Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman said that the agency would intensify surveillance of suspected Iranian supporters in the United States, and the U.S. state department renewed a six-year-old travel advisory cautioning Americans not to visit the Gulf region.

Still, U.S. government officials in Washington said that despite Iranian threats, they were not surprised that traffic of oil tankers through the Gulf continued without incident last week. Although more than 330 merchant

ships have been hit in the Gulf since Iran and Iraq carried their war into the shipping lanes three years ago, there were no reported incidents last week. The Kuwaiti tanker Gas Prince, guarded by three U.S. warships and flying the American flag, made the four-hour trip through the Strait of Hormuz with only a brief surveillance by an American-built Iranian air force P-3 reconnaissance plane. Said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who now works as a defence consultant: “Iran has no real capability to directly confront the U.S. navy, except through suicide attacks with boats and light aircraft.” Still, the uncertainty caused by a possible disruption in supply caused oil prices to jump by $1.32 a barrel to $28.

While relations between Iran and the United States were at their lowest ebb since Iran’s 1979 seizure of 52 American hostages, the Soviet Union moved last week to improve relations with its southern neighbor. Although Iran publicly holds the Soviet Union in the same disrepute as the United States, Deputy Foreign Minister Vorontsov, who is regarded as the Soviet Union’s top international negotiator, has met several times with Iranian officials in recent months. Last week the two countries announced precedent-setting agreements on a series of large-scale economic projects that included a railway linking the Soviet Union with the Persian Gulf and construction of oil pipelines. Although the Soviet Union continues to sell arms to Iraq, its longtime ally, it has pleased the Iranians by calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the Gulf. For its part, the Soviet Union clearly hopes to increase its influence in the Gulf area and avoid Iranian attacks on its merchant vessels.

In the face of the rising hostilities, U.S. officials appeared determined not to back away from their pugnacious position in the Gulf—even if it leads to military action. “We intend to continue our policy and our operations,” declared state department spokesman Charles Redman last week. But some congressional critics and other experts caution that the United States should tread lightly in order to avoid driving Iran toward an alliance with the Soviet Union. Said Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at the Georgetown Centre for Strategic and International Studies: “The U.S. is a hostage once more to the good behavior of the Ayatollah and his capacity to maintain command and control.” For both Americans and their allies in the Gulf, that was an unsettling and uncertain prospect.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

ERIC SILVER

WILLIAM LOWTHER