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The Gulf: Fight to the Finish

4 minute read
William E. Smith

The tanker war hits a lull, but Iraq fears a new land offensive

The focus in the 45-month-old war between Iran and Iraq shifted last week from the tepid waters of the Persian Gulf, where the two sides have attacked about a dozen oil tankers since the end of March, to the sweltering marshlands along the southern border between the two belligerents. According to Iraqi estimates, Iran had as many as half a million men poised to launch a new ground offensive at any time. The Iranians have also brought Hawk missiles, armor and artillery into the area. Despite recurring reports of disagreement in Tehran about the wisdom of launching yet another human-wave assault, there was little doubt that if Iran’s

Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini orders a new offensive, the battle will take place.

Iraq attacked two Iranian oil facilities last week; the damage was apparently slight, and Iran did not respond. While the Arab states tried to get the United Nations Security Council to condemn Iran for its intransigence, Syria, at the behest of the Saudis, sent to Tehran a delegation headed by Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam. He reportedly carried a Saudi offer to try to press Iraq to lift its siege of Iranian oil ports if Khomeini would agree to negotiate. The Iranians rejected the idea. As a U.S. diplomat put it: “No one has cracked Khomeini. He hears but he doesn’t listen.”

Similarly, Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal visited Baghdad and gently took the Iraqis to task for attacking Turkish tankers carrying Iranian crude oil in the gulf, but he got little satisfaction. As Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nasif Jasim later explained, “How can we know which ship our rockets hit?”

The Saudis have been trying to contain tensions in the area, hoping that reason will somehow prevail. They are desperately seeking to prevent the conflict, as well as Khomeini’s brand of Islamic fundamentalism, from spreading. Says a senior Western diplomat in Jidda: “They are timid balancers. Their power is in their pocketbooks, not their guns.” The Saudis can avoid a clash as long as the Iranians limit their attacks to tankers at sea. If they hit ships in the vicinity of the Saudi port of Ras Tanura or the Kuwaiti port of Mena al Ahmadi, a Saudi or Kuwaiti response might be unavoidable. Even more serious would be an Iranian attack on Saudi or Kuwaiti desalinization or electric power plants.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia is trying to exert some influence over Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who began the tanker attacks earlier this year as a way of forcing Khomeini to enter into peace negotiations. But Saddam Hussein will not lift his siege of Iran as long as Khomeini seems set on toppling Iraq’s government.

According to senior Iranian military officers, Iran is making contingency plans to guard against the intrusion of U.S. and other Western naval vessels in the gulf.

The Iranian navy has acquired rubber dinghies that, when equipped with out board motors, are extremely fast and highly maneuverable. The strategy is to fill several of these boats with explosives and ram them, kamikaze-style, against an enemy ship. Alternatively, the dinghies can carry two-man crews equipped with rocket-propelled grenades. In the event of U.S. intervention, Iran would try to use these “dinghy knights,” as the Iranians call them, to cause the U.S. to suffer unacceptably high losses.

At week’s end Iran issued a rare conciliatory note when Assembly Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani declared, “As far as it is possible, we will prevent a catastrophe in the Persian Gulf from occurring by diplomacy.” He hastened to reiterate, however, his government’s determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein. For the moment, neither Iran nor Iraq has the power to end the war, but both have the capacity to invoke continued devastation on the other and hardship on their neighbors.

—By William E. Smith. Reported by Barry Hillenbrand/Jidda and Johanna McGeary/Washington

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