World

A devious game in the Gulf

Claudia Wright October 13 1980
World

A devious game in the Gulf

Claudia Wright October 13 1980

A devious game in the Gulf

World

Claudia Wright

The Iraqi diplomat was in good humor in the unfamiliar surroundings of a Washington reception, far from the battlefront around Khorramshahr and Ahvaz. He had spent the week tending the office Telex as it clattered out communiqués from the Armed Forces General Command in Baghdad, retyping them, and stuffing them in envelopes for American correspondents. Now, beneath a ferocious American eagle bristling with stars and arrows, he was ecstatic. “How would you like to bet Khomeini is dead?” he grinned to another diplomat. “I don’t bet on politics,” was the rejoinder. “But do you want to kill the only man left in Tehran who can negotiate with you? Khomeini’s successors will be worse.” Baghdad’s announcement of the ayatollah’s demise turned out to be false, and there were other signs last week that the Iraqis may have made several of their bets incautiously. Apart from a protracted counterinsurgency war with the Kurds in the 1960s and early 1970s, the country’s forces have had little combat experience. In 1967, four dozen outmoded aircraft fought in the Six-Day War with Israel and at least a quarter were shot down. In the October War of 1973, the Iraqi 3rd Armored Division fell into an Israeli ambush after stopping for the night below the Golan Heights. A Syrian commander said that the Iraqis must have stopped for afternoon tea and then decided it was too close to dinner to start up again.

In the campaign against Iran, Iraq has substantially improved co-ordination between its air and ground offen-

sives, albeit against soft opposition. Even so, Iraqi air attacks failed to immobilize the Iranian Air Force or prevent counter-attacks. While if Iraqi ground commanders thought they would crush Iranian forces in a swift blitzkrieg, they clearly miscalculated.

However, the military objectives may be more limited than the press releases claim. Iraqi moves seem designed to avoid close engagements with the regular Iranian Army or attacks on civilian population centres (in Khuzistan, mostly ethnic Arabs). If the objective was to establish a buffer zone to the east of Baghdad and then lay siege to the oil, refinery and port areas in the south, that has been accomplished quickly and cheaply, though the results—slow strangulation of Tehran— will take longer to materialize.

The irony of the situation is that if Iraq aims to create the conditions for an Iranian army coup against Khomeini, then the Americans, who have harbored the same hope ever since the shah’s removal, should stay as neutral as they have proclaimed themselves. Instead, President Jimmy Carter has publicly offered to resupply the Iranians, and the men at the Pentagon, who were embarrassed by the failure of the hostage rescue mission, have been busy.

Robert Komer, the undersecretary of defense for policy—formerly the official in charge of pacification in Vietnam—flew to Cairo on Sept. 28 to supervise preparations for an exercise involving several hundred American troops and aircraft. General David Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took off on Sept. 19 for a trip that included Spain, France, West Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Oman. After he had left Madrid, Spain denied that U.S. aircraft “have been using Spanish air bases in order to supply spare parts for the Iranian Air Force.” The wording left open the possibility that this might occur in the future.*

The Germans were asked by Jones for a show of allied naval collaboration around the Straits of Hormuz. But the Schmidt government, which bowed to NATO pressure early in the year and sent a naval squadron on a cruise around the Indian Ocean, this time said German forces could not be used. Instead, the Fraser administration in

*After U.S. aircraft used Turkish bases during the hostage mission, the Turkish prime minister promised publicly that Turkey would not again lend its territory to moves against Iran. His wording did not deny that Turkish territory had been used.

Australia, also up for re-election, is rallying round.

By the time Jones reached Saudi Arabia on Sept. 27, an orchestrated press campaign in Washington began to convey the impression the Saudis were losing their confidence in Iraq’s ability to protect them from the ayatollah and were turning to the U.S. At the Pentagon, Jones’s aide, Col. Mike Wheeler, confirmed that the general had discussed the idea of sending several radar surveillance aircraft (AWACS) to the Saudi base at Dhahran. However, asked to say whether the Saudis initiated the request and, if so, which Saudis, U.S. officials would not comment.

Whichever way it happened, the AWACS move is odd. Should Iran decide to take up Carter’s offer—the only help from the outside world it can expect—it would hardly signal its desire by attacking Saudi Arabia. While even with the AWACS constantly in the air, the distance from the Iranian air base at Bushehr to the Saudi oilfields is so shortless than 250 km—that a sneak attack could probably get through.

On the other hand, Carter does need to demonstrate to his electorate that he can do something in the crisis, and he is obliged by the law to seek advance congressional approval for a deployment of American forces in a combat zone. So the AWACS mission may be intended to direct attention from other moves, while it helps to prepare public opinion for a naval show of force to escort nervous tanker captains through the Straits of Hormuz to oil loading points from Oman to Bahrain.

What else could the president have up his sleeve? On the secret side, the Pentagon may be planning to resupply Iran through Turkey, while the dirty tricks department arranges to sabotage Iraq’s oil flow through pipelines crossing Syria and Turkey. After a year’s calm, and despite stepped-up military patrols in Turkey following the Ankara coup, a group of saboteurs, allegedly Kurds, surprisingly managed to blow up a section of the Kirkuk-to-Iskenderun pipeline in September.

About half Iraq’s pre-war oil exports of 3.4 million barrels per day flowed north to Turkish and Syrian ports and refineries. Syria has granted Iraq’s request to reopen an additional pipeline to Tripoli and, if Iraq can thus compensate for the loss of its oil exports from the damaged Basra installations, its economy—and Europe’s oil supplies—will permit a long wait for Tehran’s collapse. However, in its determination to rescue Khomeini (to say nothing of the hostages), the U.S. may be figuring that Iraq will have to suffer a higher price before it could be persuaded to withdraw. The risk of a wider war in Kurdistan is growing—a contingency Baghdad may not have calculated.