Iran can survive a short-term bout with Iraq. But Tehran would be hard pressed to sustain a prolonged war with Baghdad, given its shortage of spare military parts, its crumbling economy, and the demoralization of its armed forces due to Ayatollah-led purges.
In fact, many observers have been surprised that Iranian forces have been able to retaliate as vigorously as they have so far -- even though they have been forced to admit a series of setbacks on the ground.
One reason for their better-than-expected performance may be that the Iranians have not quite played the game the way the Iraqis wanted.
Over the past several months, the Iranians reportedly kept their counterattacks against the Iraqis to a minimum, sending fewer aircraft in hot pursuit of Iraqi MIGs than Baghdad may have wanted. This could explain why the Iranians were able to claim that 140 of their planes had been sent to attack Iraqi bases Sept. 23.
The previous four months of nagging attacks on border posts in Iran's Kermanshah and Ilam regions are seen by analysts in Tehran as having been aimed at wearing down the Iranian armor and forcing them to use up their spare parts.
The surprise Iraqi air attack on Iran Sept. 22 gave Iranians their first taste of war deep inside their own country in more than 40 years. When it started suddenly on a mild Monday afternoon, most Iranians were not quite certain whether it was a foreign attack or another coup attempt.
"They thought they would catch us napping," said President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in a television broadcast the same night.
But the Iraqi bombing of Tehran's Mehrabad airport lasted no more than a few seconds, leaving the runways intact for Iranian fighter planes to take off only minutes later in hot pursuit of the attackers. Eyewitnesses in Tehran saw only three Iraqi planes taking part in the attack, and these reportedly did a very poor job. Of the two aircraft hit on the ground, one was a civilian Boeing 707 and the other a military C-130 transport plane.
Said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in a broadcast later: "They dropped a few things and went away."
The Iraqi attacks on Iranian targets near the border, however, were no sneering matter. Heavy damage and loss of life were reported. Worried Tehranis phoning their families in the western part of the country were told Khorrashahr port, for instance, was in bad shape.
Defense Undersecretary Ali Khamenei disclosed in parliament that Dezful air base near the Iraqi border had been destroyed, making it difficult for returning planes to land.
Reports of Iraqi ground operations have come only from the border areas. Attempts by either country to damage the other's oil installations have been cautious. But reports that the Abadan oil refinery had been hit caused panic among Iranian civilians. The refinery produces about 60 percent of the refined oil products used domestically.
Casualty figures in Tehran itself were not officially released, but hospital spokesmen said they were comparatively light: fewer than a dozen dead and three or four dozen injured.
No air-raid warnings were sounded when the Iraqi planes attacked. Despite much propaganda in the preceeding four months about a "20-million-man army" to be set up to defend the homeland with tooth and claw, there was no sign of civil defense groups going out to enforce a blackout. Instead, the power supply had to be cut off to put lights out in Tehran homes.