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Iran turning tables on Iraq as world watches Falklands

By Joseph C. Harsch / May 14, 1982



If you can pull your attention away for a moment from the still-unfolding drama of war and diplomacy over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, it would be worth having a quick look at another war, this one in the Middle East, that has taken a surprising turn.

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Iran was supposed to have been pretty much crippled and taken out of action in world affairs by its internal struggles between pro -- and anti-Khomeini forces. That supposition should be put aside now.

The Khomeini regime is not only on top of its internal problems, but also has rebuilt a military force that has just completed a second major and successful military offensive within less than three months.

As a result of these two offensives, Iranian forces have largely regained the territory they lost in the opening phase of the Iran-Iraq war. They are substantially up to or near the frontier as it was before the Iraqis invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980. They are in a position now either to regain the entire original frontier or push beyond it and invade Iraq itself.

It is also to be noted that the political and military recovery of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in Iran has been achieved with military aid both from the Soviet Union and from Israel. The Soviets have provided spare parts for Soviet weapons in Iran. The Israelis have provided replacement and spare parts for the American-built equipment that has been more important in the military operations.

Iranian armed forces had been largely armed and equipped with American weapons during the reign of the deposed Shah.

Israel is therefore the outside power to which the Khomeini regime is most indebted for its recovery of prestige and power. Soviet influence has gained only marginally, since Iraq's Army had been largely equipped with Soviet weapons and Moscow continues to give aid to Iraq.

The Khomeini regime owes nothing to the United States, whose last important role in Iranian affairs was the unsuccessful effort to rescue the American hostages in Tehran.

Israel gains in several ways from its support for Iran's military recovery. The Arab countries are all disturbed by the weakening of Iraq, which is Arab, at the expense of Iran, which is Muslim but a traditional enemy of the Arabs. The new situation diverts Arab resources and attention from their family quarrel with Israel to the new weakness of Iraq.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- respectively the most populous and the wealthiest of the Arab countries -- are having to think about trying to save Iraq from invasion and from possible internal political chaos. Iran's success relieves Arab pressure on Israel.

The main aim of the original Iraqi offensive was the southern Iranian province of Khuzestan, which contains the major oil fields and oil refineries of the country.

The original invasion captured the oil refining city of Khorramshahr, and nearly captured Abadan, the main point of oil export. The recapture of Khorramshahr would virtually restore the prewar frontier.

Somewhat ironically Israel, which is the big outside winner from Iran's military recovery, also supplies weapons to the Argentines. Under pressure from Washington it has agreed to refrain from new contracts of military weapons to the Argentines, but is continuing to supply under existing contracts.

The Falkland Islands affair was marked over the past week by diplomatic efforts to find a compromise solution before British troops land in force and find themselves in a decisive battle with the Argentine troops already ashore in the islands. The race between diplomats and soldiers was still unsettled as we go to press.

On the larger world stage the week was marked by a major propaganda offensive from Washington. President Reagan proposed a one-third reduction in the number of nuclear ballistic missiles in the strategic arsenals of the two superpowers.

This was a political alternative to the nuclear freeze that has been proposed on Capitol Hill and is being backed by the Democrats. The freeze at present levels of nuclear weapons is probably a shade more realistic than a reduction across the board as substantial as one-third of all existing warheads. But the Soviets are unlikely to accept either concept.

A freeze would halt the deployment of new Soviet weapons. Since the Soviets are currently deploying faster than is the US, this would limit them more than the US. The Reagan proposals for a one-third reduction would have the same effect, only more so.

It seems unlikely that much progress will be made with either formula. But the Reagan proposal did clear the way for a resumption of talks with the Soviets about arms reduction. At home it deprived the Democrats of a possibly serious advantage on the domestic political front. The one-third reduction concept is likely to be as effective politically as the freeze idea.

In alliance affairs the Reagan proposal rescued Mr. Reagan's image. He is presented as being willing to negotiate with the Soviets instead of resisting such negotiations. This should ease some strains in the NATO alliance.