France's delivery Feb. 1 of 10 new Mirage jet fighter planes to Iraq signals the first overt big-power tilt in the five-month-old Gulf war. This tilt could change the military balance between IRaq and Iran. It could also manifest a French calculation that Iraq will be the eventual victor and that relations with Tehran are not as important as with Baghdad.
Until now, Eastern and Wester powers, including France, have followed a course of strict neutrality with Iran and Iraq. In the opening weeks of the war , there was evidence that Soviet supplies were being funneled to Iraq through Jordan's port at Aqaba. But the Soviets firmly denied this, and in recent months the Jordanian land connection has faded from the spotlight.
What makes the French delivery of jet fighters to Iraq significant is that, as one Western expert puts it, "buying these airplanes does not just mean the Iraqis are driving them off the lot."
The Mirage fighter plane is new to the Iraqi arsenal and therefore would have to be complemented with a pilot-training program, spare parts, French technicians and mechanics, weapons systems, and ammunition. In short, this would mean a major new role for France as builder of the Iraqi Air Force.
Analysts, however, express puzzlement at why the Iraqi pilots chose to pick up the new jets at Larnaca, Cyprus, instead of flying them from France. This could mean that Iraq is buying the planes without a great deal of pilot training -- a situation military experts say could weigh against the effectiveness of the planes.
As one analyst put it: "Either the Iraqis aren't very bright in this deal and just want the merchandise or -- and this is more likely -- this is a major French commitment."
The entire France-Iraq weapons deal amounts to 60 Mirage F-1s (36 of which were ordered in 1977, 24 in 1979; 20 or 21 of which now have been delivered), plus 100 AMX-30 tanks, an assortment of armored cars, antitank missiles, and helicopters. Once the weapons are delivered, they will make up a major part of Iraqi front-line capabilities, allowing Iraq to phase out older Soviet equipment.
Military analysts say the combination of the Mirage F-1 and French training could produce a tactical edge in the Gulf war. Iranian pilots are American-trained and fly older US F-4s. But training and equipment have lagged since the fall of the Shah.
Observers here point out that in the past it has been standard practice for big-power suppliers automatically to halt weapons deliveries to client nations until hostilities cease. This is in keep the fighting form wearing on, to keep the supplier well out of the conflict, and to avoid political complications.
Thus the French deliveries stand out even more in light of the continuing "hot" nature of the Gulf war.
But France has a great interest in Iraq, which supplied one-quarter of France's oil before the war began and now, with occupation of oil-rich Khuzistan , could supply even more. The French, one expert says, could end up with a "guaranteed oil supply" in years to come -- if Iraq comes out on top.
Iraq also supplied a great deal of oil to both Greece and Cyprus. The Cypriot government has been guarded about its part in facilitating the deal, probably out of concern over alienating its current main oil source, Libya, which favors Iran.