This week's Iranian counteroffensive in the oil-rich southern province of Khuzestan is described by Israeli military and intelligence analysts as "a political cover-up designed for domestic consumption."
But these analysts, pointing to increasing Iranian military self-confidence, believe that Iran's armed forces have intensified their preparations for a spring counteroffensive against Iraq.
"This week's Iranian military operations can by no stretch of the imagination be described as a counteroffensive," one analyst told the Monitor Jan. 8. Israeli intelligence sources claim that Iran this week merely attacked two Iraqi battalions in the vicinity of the Khuzestan provincial capital of Ahvaz.
"The Iranians are mainly engaged in large-scale troop movements in order to stifle domestic fundamentalist criticism of the alleged ineptitude of the Iranian armed forces," one source said.
These analysts, however, list several strong indications for the planned Iranian spring counteroffensive against Iraq:
* Iran for the first time has concentrated two full divisions in the southern city of Dezful -- site of Iran's largest and most important air base.
* President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who also holds the title of supreme commander in chief, has decided to pull all troops out of the Iranian province of Baluchistan. "The Iranians are moving a whole armored division from Balunchistan to Khuzestan," one Israeli intelligence source revealed.
Israeli analysts believe that Iran is in no big hurry. "It's a long and difficult road from Baluchistan to Khuzestan," one analyst explained. He added that "Iran is transplanting this division bit by bit, one or two tanks at a time. This operation will have been completed by the spring. Iran has enough time to deploy and do what it wants."
* Iran has carefully preserved its armored division stationed in the southwestern city of Kermanshah. This division is believed not to have seen combat as yet. One analyst noted: "All Iranian operations on the west front are carried out by paratroopers and special forces."
* Iran has lost in the three months of the Gulf war approximately 50 of its US-built Phantom fighter planes. "The Iranians have at any given time 40 to 50 Phantoms operational," one Israeli military expert said.
Iranian Air Force commanders at the Dezful air base admit that Iran has been cannibalizing its 250 Phantoms. But should Iran gain access to Phantom spare parts before the spring by resolving the hostage crisis, the Iranians will be capable of putting more than 100 Phantoms in the air.
* Israeli intelligence forces claim that the flooding of Khuzestan is part of Mr. Bani-Sadr's plan for a spring counteroffensive. In what is described as a "desperate move," Mr. Bani-Sadr is said to plan to open the floodgates of the Israeli-built Dariavesh Dam in Andemeshq, north of Dezful, once the snow has melted in April or May.
Israeli military analysts point out that Iraq has not yet launched a successful river crossing in this war. A flooding of Khuzestan, for example, would widen the Khargi River from its present breadth of 40 meters to an approximate 120 meters. Although Iran also would suffer from such a flooding, Iraqi troops would be vulnerable to both Iranian Air Force attacks and artillery bombardments.
Israeli intelligence sources believe that Iran will launch its spring counteroffensive from Dezful southward. "The question is whether Iran can operate on a division level," one analyst said. An Israeli officer who attended Iranian military exercises during the Shah's reign added: "Everything I have seen indicates that they are incapable of doing so."
But Israeli sources maintain that "Iran can be successful on a local level." By pushing southward, the Iranians are expected to be able to reach the Iraqi border, thereby cutting the Iraqi presence in Khuzestan in two.
"Such a move would not be militarily decisive," one intelligence source said."
Israeli military circles give Iran's planned counteroffensive a considerable chance of success due to the increasing difficulties with which Iraq's political and military leadership is forced to cope. Analyzing the Iraqi situation, these sources claim that:
* Iraq has employed 11 divisions in the Gulf war, plus 20,000 members of its armed civilian groups. Iraq does not have a regular military reserve system and therefore is believed to have mobilized all of its manpower potential. Iran, on the other hand, with a population of 35 million, can still increase the number of its troops.
But Israeli military analysts say that those now being recuited for Iran's paramilitary revolutionary organizations receive no serious military training."They are taught how to use heavy machine guns in a stationary war," one expert said. "But," he added, "they are incapable of participating in any mobile action."
* The Soviet military embargo against Iraq is total. Iraq hitherto has been unsuccussful in concluding new military deals with the West. Although France will deliver Mirage fighter planes sold to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the Gulf war, Iraq does not have the know-how to operate this aircraft. In the past fortnight, Iraq has asked Jordan and Saudi Arabia to do its military shopping.
* Before the Gulf war, Iraq had prepared for the eventuality of a war against Israel by stockpiling military supplies in an area designated as H-4, close to the Iraqi- Jordanian border. These stocks have been emptied.
* The Iraqi air defense system has ceased to exist."Iraq is now an open sky for Iranian Phantoms," an Israeli intelligence source said. In the early stages of the war, Iraq is believed to have used 80 percent of its antiaircraft missiles.
* Iraq's only supply route is through the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Some 80 ships a day are unloaded there, carrying mainly nonmilitary goods. The port of Aqaba is said to be so crowded that ships are often forced to wait outside the port in Israeli territorial waters of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Following Iranian attacks on the Kuwaiti border station of Abdali, Kuwait has halted all overland transport to Iraq. Saudi Arabia has opened its port of Yanboa for transit goods to Iraq, but is willing to truck these goods only to the Iraqi border. Having to supply 11 divisions in Khuzestan, Iraq has no spare trucks for the onward transport of goods from the Iraqi-Saudi border.
* The Khuzestan winter is affecting the morale of the Iraqi troops who do not have winter clothing. Iraqi officers are said to be losing control of their troops. "Because they don't know how to operate," one military analyst said, "it happens that Iraqi troops by mistake shell each other."
Israeli analysts believe that Iraq now is in a hurry to end the war. Iraq fears that an Iranian spring counteroffensive might be aided indirectly both by Syria and Israel. These analysts point out that last year's Syrian military buildup on the Jordanian border was only 50 kilometers from the road leading from Aqaba to Iraq. This road and the port of Aqaba are so close to Israel that the Israeli armed forces, if they wished to do so, could easily interrupt the flow of goods to Iraq.
Israeli intelligence circles claim that Iraq's increasing difficulties have led to "differences of approach in Baghdad." President Saddam Hussein and Vice-President Tarik Aziz are said to have restrained the Iraqi armed forces from an all-out attack on the Iranian oil city of Abadan. They are also understood to have prevented their armed forces from closing in on the Iranian cities of Dezful and Khermanshah.
These decisions and Iraqi feelers put out to find a political solution to the Gulf war are believed to have irritated the Iraqi armed forces. Iraq's military command is believed to favor an all-out attempt to capture Khuzestan.