Gulf war defies Western logic; Experts' early assessments tumble as Iran, IRaq brace for longer struggle
Washington — Both the Iraqis and Iranians are defying Western -- and possibly Soviet -- logic as they fight on. Early theories, assumptions, and conventional wisdom held by Western officials and analysts about how this Middle East war might end and about who might come out on top have been crumbling.
The original hope, in the West at least, was both sides would quickly run out of fuel and ammunition and that this would end the conflict. But both sides are clearly bracing to fight a long war of attrition if necessary.
The level of combat and the pace of the fighting are both lower and slower than some Western experts had expected them to be. At the same time, the Iranians are putting up more of a fight than many Western analysts thought their state of disorganization would allow.
One widespread theory held by American officials and other experts in the early stages of the now 16-day-old war was that the Soviet Union would be an automatic winner in this war, no matter what the outcome. That theory has not been dropped by any means. For one thing, the Soviets still seem to hold more options than the West. One of them would be to resupply Iraq with arms and ammunition.
"At State, we feel that the longer the conflict endures, the more opportunities there are for Soviet meddling," said a State Department official. "The Soviets have a lot more chips to play."
But there is a growing body of expert opinion that sees a possibility of no winners emerging from the war. The Soviets' ability to manipulate the situation to their advantage may turn out to be less impressive than it was at first thought to be.
At the same time, the United States has derived a short- term gain from the war that is not talked about publicity in Washington but is talked about privately. An early theory was that better-prepared Iraqis might trounce the Iranians and thereby draw Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states into their orbit. For a few days, there was, indeed, a "band- wagon" effect in favor of Iraq.
But as the Iranians fought the Iraqis to a stalemate, the initial Arab euphoria faded. Saudi Arabia, the key oil nation, looked to the United States for support and protection. The US responded to Saudi requests by sending to Saudi Arabia four giant early-warning radar planes known as AWACs.
"This whole thing has given us an opportunity to improve our relationship with the Saudis," said one American analyst. "When they asked for the AWACs, we just leapt at it. . . . Our only mistakes was being so public about it."
The US and Britain were also able to exert influence when it came to the possibility of other Gulf states joining the Iraqis in action against Iran. The West's nightmare is that the fighting will spread, cutting off oil supplies. When the Iraqis were seen to be dispering fighter aircraft -- and, according to one report, a troop transport plane -- to other Arab states, Western diplomats warned of the consequences of a wider conflict. So did the Iranians.
The Sultanate of Oman, overlooking the strategic Strait of Hormuz, seemed to be in the process of offering the Iraqis a base from which they could seize three Iranian-held islands. That could still happen. But with the Iraqia looking less like winners and the Iranians looking more like fighters, the likelihood has apparently diminished.
By Oct. 6, Iraq had consolidated its hold on at least the port area of the Iranian city of Khorramshahr. And Jordan has offered its assistance to the Iraqis. but Western analysts doubt that the Jordanians will go so far at to enter the fighting at this stage.
The widespread early assumption that Iraq might be well on its way to becoming the dominant power in the Gulf is giving way to a realization that this war may leave that Arab state exhausted, without the reserve of energy, manpower , and other resources to play such a role.
In a war of attrition, Iran, with a population estimated at about 40 million, might prevail over Iraq, with a population estimated at 13 million.
The Iraqis thus may be tempted to "escalate" the fighting. Reports of Iraqi air strikes on Tehran Oct. 6 may be one sign of this. But as one American analyst put it, an escalation might simply cause Iraq to get stuck deeper in the Iranian quagmire.
Unfortunately for the peoples of both nations, there is much in the way of potential for destruction that has yet to be deployed. Neither side has so far committed tanks, for instance, to major battle.
In the early stages, American intelligence indicated that the Iraqi Air Force would probably dominate the skies, but the reverse appears to be the case so far. Iraq's Soviet-supplied air defenses have proved inadequate to halt pinprick attacks by the Iranians. These could prove politicaly, if not militarily, significant if allowed to continue.
The Iraqis appear to be avoiding air-to-air combat with apparently superior Iranians pilots. The American-trained and supplied Iranian Air Force, which was thought by some US specialists to be virtually inoperative, has show an ability to move spare parts and keep planes in the air that was unexpected.