THE PERSIAN GULF

A new phase in an old war

ROBIN WRIGHT September 24 1984
THE PERSIAN GULF

A new phase in an old war

ROBIN WRIGHT September 24 1984

A new phase in an old war

The contrast was ominous: just as the soaring temperatures of the Persian Gulf summer began to ebb, the four-year Gulf War between Iran and Iraq started to heat up. A 14day lull in the conflict ended abruptly last week as Iraqi jets renewed attacks on international shipping. The raids -designed to cripple Iran's oil export revenues-reportedly struck five ships. One tanker confirmed a hit by a French-built Exocet missile, and Iraqi gunboats sank the tugboat Sea-Trans 21, with a loss of three crew members. The attacks aroused new concerns in the West about the future security of the vital sea link to the Persian Gulf oil terminals. For their part, Iranian lead ers declared that their long-delayed mass offensive on Iraqi border positions is ready to begin. Iranian Prime Minis ter Hussein Musawi said that 500,000 troops were massing along the front "to deal the final blow to the Iraqi regime."

Indeed, Western observers said last week that Iraq’s efforts to blockade Iran’s Kharg Island terminal had only heightened Tehran’s militant mood. And Iran’s spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dismissed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s threats to destroy its Kharg port. “If he was capable of launching such an operation,” Khomeini declared, “he would not be hesitating.” But Iran accompanied its bellicose rhetoric with a major diplomatic initiative designed to gain additional support in the conflict from other militant Arab governments. Iranian President Hojatoleslam Ali Khamenei

THE PERSIAN GULF

travelled to Damascus, Tripoli and Algiers seeking aid. In fact, after his Sept. 6 meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, observers said that the two nations had formed a significant new alliance. Sources said that, under the informal accord, Iran will assist Syria in attacking Israeli forces in southern Lebanon and Assad will provide additional support for Iran in the gulf.

The new warlike spirit in Baghdad and Tehran is a major setback for Western attempts to arrange a negotiated settlement of the war. Not only that, but, despite heavy casualties—one estimate places the number of dead and wounded on both sides at 300,000—and the war’s crippling effect on their economies, both nations have undertaken vast rearmament programs. Observers said that Khamenei’s discussions with Algerian President Chadli Benjedid and Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Khadafy were aimed at securing even more war matériel. The Soviet Union, after a diplomatic clash with Tehran over its clampdown on the Communist Tudeh Party, has provided about $1 billion in new weaponry and ammunition to Baghdad. Gulf analysts say that Hussein is increasingly worried about his regime’s isolation, both at home and in the Arab world. He has called for an end to the war with Tehran on mutually honorable terms. But the Iranians continue to demand his overthrow as the minimal condition for peace. As a result, an autumn of carnage in the gulf may prove unavoidable.

ROBIN WRIGHT in Beirut.