The Iraqi attack on the Iranian city of Susangerd in the southern oil province of Khuzestan appears to be of more political than military significance.
Diplomats and military analysts here believe that the outcome of the heavy battle for Susangerd may prove extremely important to the positions of both Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Iraqi President and strong man Saddam Hussein.
"Susangerd itself is militarily unimportant," says one military analyst who recently visited the front. "But," he adds, "the victor will receive a tremendous political boost."
Diplomats and military analysts believe that it is "a question of days" before Susangerd will fall. They point out, furthermore, that:
* President Hussein has carefully timed the attack on Susangerd for a victory to coincide with the Arab summit meeting scheduled to begin Nov. 25 in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
* The war in Khuzestan is expected to bog down within two weeks due to heavy rains, which will make this swamp area impossible terrain for armored vehicles. Forced to fight an unexpectedly protracted war, Mr. Hussein is said to be in dire need of a visible victory.
* The fall of Susangerd would increase the fundamentalist war of attrition against Mr. Bani-Sadr. Radio Tehran reported Nov. 16 that the reason for the Iraqi advance into Susangerd was "the lack of artillery support for the combatants in the front line," a statement understood by military analysts to imply criticism by the Revolutionary Guards of the regular Iranian armed forces.
* The fall of Susangerd will have a severe demoralizing effect on the Iranian military machine. Militarily, it will "help straighten out Iraq's active line of control" in Khuzestan. Military analysts describe Susangerd as "an Iranian salient sticking into the Iraqi lines." The fall of Susangerd will enable Iraq to tighten its grip on the provincial capital of Ahvaz.
Contrary to widespread belief, neither Susangerd nor the city of Dezful, which repeatedly has been under heavy Iraqi attack, is crucial for Tehran's oil supplies. Until recently the area between Ahvaz and Dezful was the major center for distribution of oil to the rest of Iran.
In the first days of the war, Iraq destroyed a pumping station close to Ahvaz. But on Oct. 1, a newly built Italian pipeline, avoiding the area between Ahvaz and Dezful, was handed over to Iran.
Iranian government officials clearly link President Bani-Sadr's political future to the course of the war. "The war offers the Islamic Republican Party an opportunity to fortify its power positions," a close aide to Mr. Bani-Sadr told the Monitor. He stressed, however, "As long as we do not lose the war, we're doing fine politically."
Addressing a crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered Nov. 19 in Tehran's Azaadi Square for the commemoration of Imam Hussein's martyrdom, Mr. Bani-Sadr grasped the opportunity once again to lash out at his fundamentalist opponents. He accused them of creating an atmosphere of insecurity in the country, pointing to the lack of freedom of speech, and disrespect of the individual's legal rights.
"We made this revolution to overthrow the Pahlavi regime, not to establish a similar regime," he said.
Criticizing the ransacking Nov. 18 of the newspaper Misan, an outlet of former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, and the policy of Iran's state radio and television, Mr. Bani- Sadr said: "I don't need censorship, I need unity."
The President appealed to the fundamentalists to "stop the political and psychological warfare, at least until after victory [against Iraq]."
Aides to Mr. Bani-Sadr accuse the fundamentalist Khuzestan governor and leading member of the Islamic Republican Party, Sayed Muhammad Gharazi, of "being responsible for the fact that Khuzestan was left defenseless at the beginning of the war." They add that "Gharazi did his utmost to destroy the armed forces."
Mr. Bani-Sadr has spent the past weeks in Khuzestan trying to reduce the effects of the fundamentalist campaign against the armed forces in recent months. His aides claim that:
* A very intensive repair and mantainance job is now going on. "But," one aide said, "we are groping with a lack of technical knowledge."
* The massive purge of the top echelons of the armed forces has often rendered the troops without experienced and knowledgable commanders. Bani-Sadr aides accuse Governor Gharazi of playing a central role in the purges in Khuzestan.
* The purges have caused the disintegration of discipline within the armed forces. "If Gharazi had been prime minister," one Bani- Sadr supporter said, "then Khuzestan, possibly at the expense of the rest of the country, would have been in better shape."
If Susangerd falls, diplomats expect Iraqi President Hussein to urge the Arab summit conference from "a position of strength" to call for a cease-fire and negotiations in the Gulf war.
But Nov. 19 President Bani-Sadr told his listeners, among whom was United Nations special envoy and former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme: "We will not forgive Saddam for his historical crimes. We will continue the war until we achieve total victory."