Iran air attack on Kuwait likely to fuel AWACS debate

The reported Iranian air attack on a Kuwaiti oil installation at the head of the Gulf will send a shudder through all the oil-producing states in the immediate vicinity.

That shudder will probably reach all the way to Washington, where battle is joined over the sale of AWACS, or sophisticated radar surveillance planes, to Saudi Arabia. It is to guard against precisely such unpredictable attacks that the Saudis want the American weapons package.

The psychological effect of the latest incident is unlikely to be lessened by Iran's denial that it planes were responsible.

Kuwait has accused Iran of carrying out three previous air raids against Kuwaiti border areas since the Gulf war broke out in September last year. Iran has denied the charges. The attacked oil installation is near an Iraqi oil complex, a frequent target of Iranian planes.

Nonetheless, the latest incident revives the specter of the Gulf war -- successfully contained in stalemate until this week -- spreading further into the volatile Middle East.

Any such extension of the war could put a risk the whole pattern of world oil supplies.

Symbol of the stalemate in the war has been the stalled Iraqi siege of the Iranian oil refinery center of Abadan, which the Iraqis had hoped to capture late last year after taking the Iranian port city of Khorramshahr just to the north.

But the Iranians announced Sept. 27 that they had broken the siege and pushed Iraqi forces back from the Karun River, on the nothern side of Abadan. Iraq called the Iranian report "pure imagination and lies" but conceded "a tactical withdrawal."

This apparently successful Iranian counterattack -- coupled with the air attack on the Kuwaiti oil installation -- shows that for all Iran's internal turmoil, there still burns in Iranian hearts a fierce natinalism capable of holding its own in the war with Iraq.

One can only speculate about any Iranian calculation behind this sudden new spurt of military activity. It may well be aimed at stirring a new round of international diplomatic activity to bring the war to an end.

The war, launched by Iraq in September 1980, was essentially aimed at:

1. Regaining for Iraq sovereignty over the entire width of the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the head of the Gulf (control over part of the waterway had been traded away to the then Shah of Iran in 1975).

2. Securing for Iraq some minor territorial concessions farther north, which the Shah had agreed to as part of the 1975 deal.

3. Obtaining a pledge from Iran to halt subversive activities aimed at spreading Ayatollah Khomeini's brand of revolutionary Persian Shiism among Iraq's considerable Arab Shia Muslim population.

These remain the Iraqi conditions for making peace with Iran.

Iraqi forces have managed to maintain most of the toe-holds on the Iranian side of the border that they won in the early weeks of their invasion. Iran's minimum terms for peace -- and a prerequisite for negotiation -- are Iraqi withdrawal from Iranian territory.

Efforts by third parties over the past year to get peace talks going have foundered so far on the refusal of both Iraq and Iran to budge from their respective positions. Yet it seems both sides would benefit from an outside shove toward further negotiation.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein made a major miscalculation in thinking that a sharp, surprise Iraqi military attack would bring down Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution. The longer the military stalemate with Iran continues, the greater the likelihood of its developing into a threat to his political ascendency at home.

As for the Iranians, the war that Iraq forced on them only diverts energies and thought from the all-important task of reestablishing internal calm and stability after 2 1/2 years of revolutionary turmoil and mounting violence.

Iran's present leadership was dealt yet another blow Sept. 29 when four top defense officials -- including the defense minister and the acting chief of staff -- were killed in a plane crash near Tehran.

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