For more than six years the Persian Gulf states of Iran and Iraq have fought a grinding, inconclusive war. During most of that time the conflict has attracted only sporadic attention in the West, partly because authorities on both sides generally have kept reporters from the front. But for the past month, following reports of clandestine U.S. arms supplies to Iran, the war has been the focus of world attention. And last week the hostilities intensified. On Nov. 25 Iraqi jets made a 1,560-mile round-trip raid on Iran’s Larak oil terminal at the far end of the Persian Gulf. The next day a long-range Iranian missile— the third launched against Iraqi targets in 12 days— landed in a densely populated district of Baghdad, killing at least 53 people.
Those strikes demonstrated the two sides’ long military reach and signalled an ominous new phase in the war.
Dispute: Since the predawn hours of Sept. 23, 1980, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent six armored divisions across the Shatt alArab waterway into Iran to settle an old frontier dispute, the two Islamic nations have battled to a costly stalemate.
Shipments of arms and spare parts from an estimated 17 countries—including China,
North Korea, Israel and Libya—have helped to keep the Iranian war machine going against an enemy openly and massively supplied by France and the Soviet Union. Now, following the disclosure that President Ronald Reagan secretly broke the United States’ own 1980 arms embargo on Iran, military experts predict increased sales to Tehran by U.S. friends and allies. Such a flood of arms can only heighten the conflict after Iran’s renewed threats to topple the Iraqi regime. Declared Thomas McNaugher, a Persian Gulf expert at the Washingtonbased Brookings Institution: “It certainly makes it much more difficult for us to enforce a policy of stanching the flow of arms.”
In Washington there was a dispute about the effect of the weapons secretly sold to Iran. Before his resignation last week, U.S. National Security Ad-
viser Admiral John Poindexter reportedly said that the arms included 2,008 TOW antitank missiles and at least 235 Hawk surface-to-air missiles. That appeared to conflict with Reagan’s claim that the weapons were purely defensive. Indeed, some military experts said that the weapons provided Iran with significant new striking power. Said Senator Sam Nunn, the ranking Democrat on the Senate armed services committee: “When you have a
major power like Iran that has the declared policy of taking over Iraq, in this context there is no way you could describe the arms that were transferred as being defensive in nature.”
Crucial: The new U.S. Hawk missiles may be particularly crucial to Iran. Air strikes on economic targets—particularly Iranian oil terminals and tankers in the Persian Gulf—are currently key to Iraq’s military strategy. Iran depends on oil revenues to underwrite the massive cost of the war. The deployment of Hawk missiles by Iran could increase Iraqi aircraft losses or deter Iraqi pilots from attacking such key installations as Kharg Island, Iran’s main oil-shipping centre in the Gulf.
Leaders of many Middle Eastern countries have seemed willing to let the war continue indefinitely. Israel
has a clear interest in keeping two of its most powerful enemies engaged in hostilities. And many moderate Arab leaders, while officially supporting Iraq, express concern that the radical Baghdad regime, if victorious, might threaten its smaller neighbors as it has done in the past. But most Arab moderates say that they are even more worried about an Iranian victory which could signal the spread of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region.
Meanwhile, the war is exacting a heavy toll. Iran has suffered an estimated 250,000 dead and 500,000 wounded, while Iraq has counted 100,000 dead and 150,000 injured. In the streets of both countries, maimed and limbless ex-servicemen are testimony to the savagery of the fighting. Nearly every day, coffins are shipped back from the front while civilians die in air raids and rocket attacks. Still, as thousands of new Iranian volunteers prepared last week to join an estimated 650,000 troops already massed along the 1,170-km front, it was clear that Tehran—bolstered by new U.S.supplied arms—had not lost its taste for war.
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