Soviets keep arms supplies at arms' length in Gulf war

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One long-term effect of the Iran-Iraq war may be to give the Soviets control over arms supplies to both combatants, a strategic affairs expert here warns. Col. Jonathan Alford, deputy director of London's prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says that this situation could come about if an Iranian weapons dependency on the Soviet Union were established.

Iraq has shown many signs recently of trying to diversify from its traditional East bloc arms sources. But Colonel Alford points out that "transforming an army's entire weapons system in the middle of a war is scarcely feasible." Iraq would therefore would seem to be locked into procurement from the Soviets for a number of years, "whether it wants to be or not," he surmised.

For the moment, the Soviets, like the United States, "each see powerful reasons why they should maintain some distance from the conflict," in terms of arms supplies, according to Colonel Alford.

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Colonel Alford says he has no evidence that since the war started in September 1980, there have been substantial Soviet arms shipments to Iraq, which signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Moscow back in 1972. "There has been nothing like the massive airlift we saw going into Ethiopia in 1977," he said.

Such shipments as were reported being shipped from the Jordanian port of Aqaba in the early weeks of the war, he described merely as "a trickle of items that were probably already in the pipeline."

Iraqi opposition sources confirm that "No new arms shipments have been sent to Iraq by Soviets since the war began." Successive visits to Moscow of President Saddam Hussein's special envoy Tarek Aziz have failed to unblock the Soviet arms channel, they claim.

This has given the Iraqis added impetus to come to the West European arms market, as they have increasingly been reported doing over recent months.

Even before the Gulf war started, Saddam Hussein's pragmatism had led him to start seeking ways to dilute his arms dependence on Moscow. His commander showed a particular interest in French technology, which accorded with his own political inclinations toward the Paris of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Now, Iraqi acquisition of French Mirage fighter planes, which has already started, may be followed by plans to buy and subsequently build British Hawk training planes. The Iraqis are also reported interested in the British Chieftan (renamed Shir Iran for the late Shah of Iran) tank, which was developed especially with the desert conditions of the Gulf region in mind.

Their opponents in Iran have meanwhile been experiencing some weapons shortages of their own. In one of the most curious twists of the Gulf war arms game, Israel is reported to have been quietly supplying some of Iran's needs.

But the IISS's Col. Alford stresses that he still feels vindicated in his original predictions that "it would not be weapons shortages which bring an end to the war."

Utilization of the large armories previously owned by each side has been remarkably low in his estimation. The only real shortages he could posit on both sides were heavy and medium ammunition on the Iraqi side, and lubricating oils for the Iranians.

"Apart from that, the most obvious lack is the inability of both sides to make full use of what they've already got," he surmised.

It is in this situation that the Soviets, Col. Alford suggests, are probably hoping to insinuate their own arms supplies into Iranian armories. And it is their hopes of improving relations with Iran, he argues, which probably explain the Soviets' distint lack of support for the present Iraqi war effort.

"The Soviets must be optimistic with regard to Iran," Col. Alford said, "they must anyway have been very pleased with the curtailment of American influence there -- although of course that is still a long way away from a situation of Iranian dependence on the Soviets."

"They might just be sitting around in Moscow hoping for their opportunity to come to replace the Americans in Tehran," he considered, noting that Iran would be a richer strategic prize than Iraq for the Soviets.

That the regime in Tehran might not ultimately reject Soviet overtures is indicated by another interesting strategic phenomenon, he noted. "A surprising thing about Iran, is that even in the hardest days of their war, they were not prepared to swallow their pride and go to the single source able to supply all their strategic needs -- the United States."

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