Washington — Iran's tooth-and-nail defense of the oil refining center of Abadan and the slow overall advace of IRaqi troops have amazed Western observers and Iraqis alike who believed that revolutionary chaos had all but destroyed Iranian armed forces.
However, this tenacity is obscuring the country's increasingly dire military predicament, claims a leading US expert. says John M. Collins, senior specialist in national defense for the Congressional Research Service. "If it loses total control of its oil-production assets at the head of the Persian Gulf then it's going to be in real trouble. If they don't have that they can't operate their military machine, and they can't operate an economy, which is in trouble anyway."
Mr. Collins, a retired colonel, points out that with the reported cutting of the oil pipeline from Abadan to Tehran, Iran has lost "just about the sole source of its refined petroleum products."
Both he and his associate, Clyde R. Mark, contend that Irag's apparently lackluster performance is explained by the fact that, with limited objectives, Baghdad has committed only a small part of its forces to the war -- a war, they contend, that it hopes to win with a minimum of casualties.
"Therefore, instead of trying to take Abadan apart brick by brick," says Collinc, "they amy settle for a siege around the place."
So why haven't Iraqi forces punched deep into Iran?
What's the point? Just east of the border you have the Zagros Mountains, which are one of the toughest mountain ranges in the world. Iran's oil installations are either in the western foothills of those mountains or they're on the lowlands at the exit of the Shatt al Arab. So the really critical terrain that would cause Iran to collapse if you seized it is all down there in that corner along the northern edge of the Persian Gulf," Collins says.
Both he and Mr. Mark point out that, in defending their oil producing region against the Iraqis, the Iranians find themselves "on the wrong side of the mountains" operating with "lengthy lines of supply and communications in an area where it is very difficult for them to be effective."
But if Iranian forces are constricted, Iraqi strategy leaves something to be desired, say observers. Instead of battering Abadan, Iraqi commanders should have raced for Dezful, a key road, rail, and pipeline center to the north. Although they now are reportedly assaulting the town, its early capture, says Collins, would have given them control over the region they now are trying to seize in the face of fanatical Iranian opposition.
While admitting that Iran is beset with awesome problems in its war with Iraq , other analysts think it will eventually triumph in what has become a grueling war of attrition.
"It's a people's war as far as Iran is concerned," says Prof. thomas Ricks, an Iran expert at Georgetown University here. He claims that, above all, Iranians are concerned with preserving the republic created by the revolution. "They'll be prepared to do that even if they have to use stones," he says. "Even if Iraq destroys all of their equipment and syntematically destroys their industry, Iran would win."
Professor Ricks cautions against "measuring a country's ability to defend itself on the basis of military effective units." Vietnam, he says, showed the folly of such an approach. "this is a people's war then, in the same sense as Vietnam, and for that reason it's a political as well as military conflict. And I don't think Iraq can stand against that."
The Georgetown professor maintains that although the Iranian army suffered a 50 to 60 percent desertion rate after the late Shah's fall, many deserters "just changed uniforms and became revolutionary guards. They left the military and walked to Qom and put themselves in the hands of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini." As he sees it, therefore, the Army did not so much disintegrate as undergo a transformation. He doubts, moreover, that Iran will encounter a spare parts shortage, believing it will be able to cannibalize "from the massive amounts of weapons that were imported into the country."
Ricks contends that Iraq's "first and foremost" aim is to topple the Khomeini government and although he concedes that 30 percent of Iranians probably do not support the Ayatollah, "that's not the issue -- it's the preservation of the republic." Iranians, he emphasizes, "rally around that without any problem." Iraqis, he suggests, are by no means as devoted to their ruling Baathist Party.
Some experts point out that Iran has the Shah to thank for its modern weaponry, even if poor maintenance has prevented the sue of much of it. "He's the only guy that built their armed forces," says a Pentagon analyst.
The analyst, who thinks both sides will soon run out of Soviet-made artillery -- "there's been so much use of it" -- says Iraq underestimated Iran's fighting strength, imagining its military "was on its knees." Had Iran not taken US diplomats hostage, he says, "and had they not so stubbornly held onto them, the US would probably still be supplying spare parts, and Iraq would not have dared attack. I would say that some Iranian leaders, probably not the religious leaders, but the more practical -- and we think that maybe [President Abolhassan ] Bani-Sadr is one of those -- realizes that the reason Iran is in this fix is because of those dumb hostages."
Declaring the Gulf region a tinderbox, Collins believes that only the Soviet Union could provide Iran with fuel if IRaq seized Abadan.
"I don't see anybody else who's in a good position to do so," he says. But Soviet assistance to Tehran would inevitably risk dragging the great powers into the conflict, it is believed here.