Longer Gulf war a threat for all sides

Take two defiant Mideast foes, tow jittery yet oddly powerless superpowers, and the world's richest oil region, and you have a potentially dangerous new stage in the Iraq-Iran war.

Washington, Moscow, and other outside powers have been escalating efforts to get that message across to the stubborn combatants, each apparently playing for time and confident that events would move its way.

Some senior United Nations diplomats expressed private hopes that, despite the apparent failure of Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq's peace initiative, a late Wednesday afternoon meeting among representatives of Islamic nations still might produce the first real mediation progress.

Reports of battlefield setbacks for Iraq were seen as a potential moderating influece on the Baghdad regime which started the fighting 11 days ago. At time of writing, Iraq was even expected to announce a unilateral ceasefire.

But whether the Iraqis would follow through on such a proposal remained far from clear. And Iran Oct. 1 rejected the UN Security Council's call to end the fighting.

Both Western and third-world officials contacted by The Christian Science Monitor argued that time was becoming an increasingly powerful enemy of efforts to calm the crisis.

The Iraqi push across the desert frontier with Iran, the analysts argued, had created a new breed of Middle East war. If not checked soon, their reasoning went, the conflict might ultimately pose a greater world threat than the more violent Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

There was a set of unspoken rules and constraints in the Arab-Israeli showdowns.

Israel had to pay heed to the United States, its essential aid patron. The Arab oil powers stayed largely on the sidelines, and oil installations remained unharmed. The oil-less "front-line" Arabs, meanwhile, needed support from Moscow and were ultimatley constrained by the threat of superior Israeli military might.

The rival superpowers, whether individually or through the UN Security Council, could ultimately keep the conflict in check.

The rules are different this time around. Indeed, one of the more frightening aspects of the Iraqi-Iranian conflict for would-be mediators is that no one is quite sure what the new rules are.

Some senior US diplomats feel Iraq's original war strategy was, in imitation of Israel's lightning victory in the 1967 war, to hobble the Iranians' military in hours or days and then simply pose for victory photographs.

If so, things haven't worked out that way. While most experts still say the Iraqis are winning the war in a purely military sense, their edge has proven nowhere near convincing enough to make the Iranians yell "uncle."

Each side, meanshile, has broken what one senior US officials terms "an unspoken taboo" on bringing oil installations into war. There has been no firm indication yet how severely these installations have been damaged nor of how long they will take to repair. But they have been hit, and that can hardly be a welcome precedent for other oil powers in the region nor for their Western customers.

At the same time, Washington and Moscow must content themselves with far less influence than in the Arab-Israeli wars.

If only because the current conflict remains less violent, both Iran and Iraq could conceivably kep fighting even with a cut-off in outside support.

Iran, in particular, has managed to keep flying bee-sting air sorties against Iraqi targets despite persistent US estimates that the American-vintage war planes should be running out of spare parts and fuel. TAnd both combatants share a defiant distaste for both Moscow and Washington. True, the "Imperialist" Americans are common enemy No. 1.But fundamentalist Iran has shown no gushing fondness for "godless" communism as an alternative; and Iraq's 1972 friendship treaty with Moscow has not stopped the Baghdad regime from mounting a violent crackdown on local communists, nor from proposing a recent regional charter slapping at both superpowers.

Iraq has also diluted its military dependence on Moscow by turning increasingly to Western arms suppliers.

Washington and Moscow are both clearly uneasy with the prospect of an open-ended conflict near the oil-rich Gulf, and have been escalating public calls for restraint. And as Washington dispatched four early warning radar aircraft to Saudi Arabia to bolster that country's defenses, Iran itself seemed to be trying to forestall any outside intervention by publicly coming out in favor of freedom of passage through the vital Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.

[Reuter reported Oct. 1 from Baghdad that Iraq's offensive against Iran seemed to have ground to a halt, raising the prospect of a prolonged war with no clear victor.

[Initial Iraqi advances across the dusty plains of Khuzestan, Iran's oil producing region, have been checked at the gates of the province's main cities by unexpectedly fierce resistance on the ground and from the air.

Ten days after storming across the border Iraqi troops have still not captured their three key objectives -- the oil refining center of Abandan, the port city of Khorramshahr, and the province capital of Ahvaz.

A concerted series of strikes against Iranian airbases early in the offensive failed to knock out its air force.

[iranian planes are still flying daily sorties in support of ground forces defending Khuzestan and striking at military and industrial targets in Iraq -- including Baghdad.]

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