Nicosia, Cyprus — Last fall, the world's television sets came alive with frightening images that seemed to portend, at the least, long lines and high prices at the filling stations -- at the worst, a fiery war engulfing the oil fields of the Middle East.
Thick black clouds rolled up from the 610,000-barrel-per-day oil refinery at Abadan, Iran. Bright-faced Iraqi soldiers fired off Frog missiles and artillery rounds, then seemed to blitz into Iran, Tehran-bound. Phantoms and MIGs swooped in to bomb Tehran and Baghdad while air raid sirens wailed. American and Soviet armadas steamed near the Strait of Hormuz --and the now-famous US airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes were dispatched to Saudi Arabia to keep a watch on this dangerous flare-up near the West's oil lifeline.
Would the war spill over? The oil stop? The superpowers collide?
Weeks slipped into months out in the swamps, lowlands, and sudden heights of Mesopotamia. Both armies proved ineffective, and accounts of battle and casualties were found to be notoriously unreliable. The press lost interest. Th conflict slipped out of the news.
Eight months after Iraq's President Saddam Hussein abrogated a 1975 treaty with the late Shah and sent his soldiers over the Shatt al Arab estuary into Iran --what has become of the war?
iraq has failed to penetrate more than 40 miles into Iran and since last fall has been slugging it out against an increasingly effective Iranian Army along relatively static lines. Though no major changes in position have occurred in more than five months. Iran appears to be making small gains in the central highlands of Khuzestan. An often-mentioned "spring offensive" by Iraq has failed to occur, and Iran claimed in early May to have foiled a thrust directed personally by President Hussein and to have defeated an entire Iraqi Army division.
No settlement seems to be in the offing, however, because neither side has either a clear military advantage or enough self-confidence to be conciliatory. Iraq still says it wants a cease-fire, negotiations over the border dispute, and then Iraqi troop withdrawal -- in that order. Iran wants an Iraqi withdrawal, simultaneous with a cease-fire, then border negotiations. Peacemaking missions by the United Nations, the Islamic Conference, and the nonaligned movement have so far failed.
Because both Iran and Iraq have said they would support Syria in a possible war with Israel, there is some speculation in the region that the war will eventually wind down, to be replaced by renewed Arab-Persian solidarity against Israel. But no one is counting on a settlement of the Iran-Iraq feud for some time.
As the war creeps along, an assessment shows that conventional wisdom at the war's outset have been overturned:
* Politically shaky, economically reeling, militarily ill-supplied, the Islamic Republic of Iran has nonetheless survived and seems more united that at the beginning of the war. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is more in control than ever and has expressed satisfaction with the new, modest successes of the Iranian Army.
The Iraqi Army is not the "Wehrmacht" that the Israelis have frequently sait it is. But despite the protracted campaign, Hussein's minority Baathist regime in Iraq has not been seriously threatened by internal opposition.
Hussein has used the national unity created by the war to purge his party of dis-loyal elements. Stymied on the battlefield, Hussein also is turning more and more to attempts to create fifth columns inside Iran among the Kurds, Baluchis, Azerbaijanis, Turks, and other groups.
* The superpowers have not collided over the Gulf war, nor has either Moscow or Washington gained major, direct strategic advantages because of it, Hussein does continue to move toward the moderate, pro-Western Arab fold but is still quite critical of Israel and Camp David. Iran is not known to be moving dramatically closer to Moscow. There is discussion in Theran of this one-time oil power seeking financial help from Western money sources.
* Surprisingly, the world's oil supply has not been adversely affected by war in the oil fields, and in fact may have been benefited. There is now a surplus of oil on world markets, which most oil experts expect to continue. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been pumping 2 million extra barrels per day (bpd) in order to compensate for the lost Iranian and Iraqi crude. As the war saps financial resources in Baghdad and Tehran, both countries are eager to begin pumping once again. Iraq has climbed from 300,000 bpd in October to 1.2 million bpd. Iran is already pumping 1.2 million to 1.4 million bpd and is shooting for 2.5 million bpd by the end of the year.
* The war has not spread throughout the Gulf. In fact, with the war as impetus, the sheikhdoms of the Gulf have banded together for the first time ever into a Gulf Security Council. Iraq, often antagonistic toward conservative Arab states in the past, has drawn closer to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Egypt, from which it is receiving weapons and spare parts.
Some Western analysts believe that the war was not necessarily "hyped" at its outset, and that the legitimate alarm felt in the West over the specter of oil giants colliding caused Arab, American, and European diplomats to work overtime to keep a disasterous general blow-up from occurring. Added to this has been the mediocre performance of the two armies and a now-apparent desire in both Tehran and Baghdad to limit the conflict.
But far from fizzling out, the gulf war seems destined to continue along modest lines for months -- even years -- since neither combatant is yet in a position to bargain.