The loan by the French government to Iraq of five Super Etendard fighter-bombers capable of firing Exocet missiles could mark a turning point in the 34-month-old Gulf war between Iran and Iraq.
The Exocet missiles - which sunk two British vessels during the Falklands war - and the advanced French fighters may effectively pin down the bulk of the Iranian airforce which is needed to protect Iranian oil terminals on Kharg Island. The Iranians admit there is little they can do against the Super Etendards.
Observers in Tehran believe that a large-scale successful strike against Iranian oil facilities in the Gulf would infuriate the Iranians. It is also likely to trigger an all-out Iranian ground and air offensive into Iraq.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, has begun to warn that Iran could bomb Iraqi urban centers. Quoting the prophet Muhammad, who once ordered his soldiers to use Muslim prisoners of war as human shields, the speaker of the Iranian parliament Hojatolislam Rafsanjani said that there were no penalties ''for martyring Muslims if their martyrdom was to insure the victory of Islam.''
One year after their first offensive into Iraq, Iranian troops have not yet achieved an overall victory. Their first drive toward the city of Basra in July 1982 ended in the marshy area between the border and the Shatt al Arab waterway.
During the renewed offensive in November 1982 and February 1983, the Iranians recaptured small pockets of Iranian territory that had been under Iraqi occupation for more than two years. They then proceeded within Iraq but were stopped after a few miles. The last push in April also bogged down.
Although no foreign correspondent has been allowed on the front line for more than a year, observers in Tehran believe that after their sweeping victories during the spring of 1982, the Iranians were surprised by the staunch resistance of the Iraqi Army in defending its national territory.
The Iranians in the past have often launched their offensives after sunset in order to avoid the fire of Iraqi helicopters. They generally succeed in crossing the first Iraqi defense lines of mine fields, wide trenches, and booby-trapped barbed wires.
Problems usually start at dawn when they discover that the Iraqi lines are much deeper than they had anticipated. Soldiers and revolutionary guards often find themselves in hostile territory without adequate air support, sometimes waiting for hours for reinforcements.
In a recent interview in Tehran with a group of foreign correspondents, Colonel Shirazi, the chief of the Iranian ground forces, recognized that the last two offensives had not achieved their goal. He said this was so ''because of a certain lack of coordination in our own ranks and because some of us had underestimated the strength of the enemy.'' Nonetheless, the Iranians still contend they are able to launch an all-out offensive that would bring them deep inside Iraq. They say they presently refrain from doing so because the human cost would be immense.
Exact figures are not available, but several thousand Iranians are said to have been killed in the recent fighting. This has sparked a debate between regular Army officers and clergy leaders.
In the coming months, the Iranians are expected to launch new but limited attacks aimed at liberating the 450 square miles of their own territory that are still under Iraqi control. They will also try to occupy a buffer strip of Iraqi territory, they say, to put their towns out of Iraqi artillery range.
A recent United Nations investigation confirmed that Iranian cities have suffered more from the war than have Iraqi cities. Dezful's densely populated neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble by Soviet-made ground-to-ground missiles. The city of Abadan is still pounded every day.
The Iraqis reacted to the repeated Iranian ground offensive by attacking installations in the Gulf. In the beginning of March, the Iraqis hit three wells causing the wells to flow out of control and creating a huge oil slick. ''If the Iraqis refrain from harassing our repairing crews,'' said an Iranian source, ''we would cap the wells within a few days.''
The Iraqis called for a United Nations-supervised truce on all fronts before permitting Iranian technicians to approach the damaged wells. But Tehran refused to yield to such pressures for a truce. Iranian officials repeatedly stressed that the war will not end before the fall of Saddam Hussein. ''The Iranian people will never accept any peace treaty with Iraq as long as the Baath Party is in power'' Khomeini said.
Baghdad's recent approval in permitting Turkish soldiers to cross into Iraqi territory to crush Kurdish rebels in the area is perceived in Tehran as a sign of the growing weakness of the Iraqi regime. The Iraqis are indeed desperately short of cash. Cut from access to the Gulf, they are dependent on a single pipeline through Turkey to export their very limited oil production. They also face Arab allies more and more reluctant to help them. President Saddam Hussein recently said, ''Some of our brothers who used to extend loans to us have reconsidered their stance.''
The sharp drop in oil revenues has forced several Arab countries to limit their spending and the Gulf sheikhdoms have begun to realize that when the war ends they will have to resume normal relations with Iran.