iran's oil wealth may be imperiled by fighting

Fighting between Iran and Iraq reportedly has intensified in the sensitive Shatt Al-Arab waterway area between the two countries. Tehran worries that a military push by Iraq may threaten the loss of one of Iran'w major oil-producing regions.

Iran radio reports indicate fighting has spread to Khorammshahr, the Iranian port on the waterway, and to the airport at Abadan, where major Iranian oil installations are located. Khorramshahr is a major entry point for imports to Iran.

Iranian artillery and rocket fire reportedly was being directed toward the Iraqi side of Shatt Al-Arab at various points.

The two countries have a longstanding dispute on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway at the head of the Gulf. This dispute supposedly was resolved by the Shah before the revolution, on the principle that each country kept that half of the waterway which was closest to its borders.

The concern now is that the Iraqis may scrap that deal and try to take control of the whole waterway.

The Iranians also are taking the escalation of the border war with Iraq seriously for another reason. They have not forgotten that the American commando raid into Iran last April 25, aimed at rescuing the US hostages, was made about the time of an escalation of fighting on Iran's borders with Iraq.

(At the time, the clashes were in Kermanshah Province, farther to the north.)

Fears are that if President Carter is planning another military operation against Iran, an ideal moment for him to act would be while Iranian forces are concentrating on the Iraqis.

Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr meanwhile is moving to counteract the Iraq moves, following the extension of fighting to the oil-rich province of Khuzestan about mid-September.

A call-up of Iranian reserves was issued Sept. 20 and the President was reported to be spending much of his time in the combined headquarters of the Iranian armed forces in Tehran.

His concern is that a naval war may break out between the two countries, endangering the Iranian oil terminal on Kharg Island in the Gulf.

Fighting in the Khuzestan area brings the border war too close to the Iranian Oil resources and removes it from the Iraqi oil wells, which he mainly to the north.

The Iraqi Baathist regime, moreover, has long had claims to Khuzestan Province itself, which is referred to as "Arabistan" in Iraqi official propaganda. This claim extends back into the Shah's regime, when the Iraqis were assisting an underground Arab resistance movement in Khuzestan.

The movement is based on the fact that a large percentage of the population of Khuzestan consists of people of ARab orgin, who still speak Arabic among themselves.

The movement did not die out after the Iranian revolution early last year. If anything, it intensified, even though it was put down with a strong hand by Ahmad Madani, former Khuzestan governor general.

The fear in Tehran is that Baghdad may have decided that the time has come to "liberate" Khuzestan and set up a puppet ARab state in the province. The loss to Iran would not only be territorial, but also the major part of the country's oil wealth.

The call-up of Iranian reserves to face Iraqi forces in the area indicates that Iranian leaders are simply not taking any chances.

The two nations have been engaged in across-the-border artillery duels since April this year, but the fighting has been largely ignored by the Western press after correspondents who visited the border areas found reports in the Iranians press were highly exaggerated.

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