French-made jets may escalate Iran-Iraq war

Any day now, five sleek Super Etendard jets are expected to be sent from a French naval base to Iraq - a move that could dangerously escalate the war between Baghdad and Tehran.

Iraq's foreign minister, Tareq Aziz, has said his country will use the Super Etendards, fitted with ''fire and forget'' Exocet missiles, against Iranian oil installations at Kharg Island in the Gulf.

Whether Iraq has the political will to carry out this threat is debatable. But military experts here agree that the Super Etendard-Exocet combination - the same that destroyed the British warship Sheffield during the Falklands war - could destroy tankers loading at Iran's oil terminals.

A successful attack on Kharg Island would threaten Iran's oil exports, which are almost entirely shipped from the island. Iran cannot afford to lose the proceeds from its only significant export.

The Iranians have said they will retaliate for any attack on their oil installations by closing the Strait of Hormuz. Such a move would shut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf and perhaps with it the light of a flickering world economic recovery.

''If a problem is created for the exporting of Iranian oil, no country in the region will be able to continue exporting its own oil,'' Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vellayati declared last July.

Military experts here confirm that Iran could easily make good on its threat. Fewer than 100 Iranian mines strategically placed in the strait could block almost all oil exports from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

Such a scenario has long been a nightmare of American policymakers. In January 1980, Jimmy Carter warned that if the strait was blocked the United States would intervene. President Reagan has not altered that commitment.

To head off any potential crisis, the Americans would like the Super Etendards to remain at home. American officials here confirm that they have conducted ''low key'' discussions with French officials about the Super Etendards. But they say they are not pressuring the French because ''that would just make the French more determined to go ahead.''

For their part, the French have been keeping quiet about the deal. No official announcement has been made. Details have been revealed only in the daily Le Monde, and French Defense Ministry officials refuse to elaborate on them.

But the officials also refuse to deny the reports, and instead answer questions about the jets by justifying French support for Iraq. Iraq is in a difficult financial situation and the present war of attrition could wear the Iraqis down, they say. France merely wants to prevent an Iranian victory that would destabilize the entire Arab world, they add.

Diplomatically, support for Iraq keeps France in the good graces of the other Arab states. France depends on the Arabs for much of its oil imports and as a market for much of its manufacturing exports.

Iraq alone is an important commercial partner for the French. Before the war, Iraq was France's second most important oil supplier, and even more important, the largest buyer of French goods in the Middle East.

As far back as the early 1970s, the French showed themselves willing to go to great lengths to secure their Iraqi connection. Despite heated Israeli protests, they built a controversial nuclear reactor outside Baghdad and trained Iraqi nuclear physicists to run it. The Israelis destroyed the reactor in 1981.

Relations between Paris and Baghdad strengthened after Iraq invaded Iran. France continued to export commercial goods on a large scale. Exports totaled almost $1 billion from 1981 to June 1983, according to Foreign Trade Ministry statistics. France also became Iraq's largest arms supplier as Baghdad loosened its ties with Moscow.

Earlier this year, though, the Iraqis could no longer pay their bills. Their oil exports had fallen from a prewar high of some 3.25 million barrels per day to some 75,000 b.p.d., the amount their remaining pipeline through Turkey can transport. At the same time, because of the falling price of oil the other Gulf states were cutting back their aid to Iraq.

By February of this year, Iraq's debts to France had reached an estimated 35 billion francs. Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz made a frantic visit to Paris and struck a deal with his hosts. In return for continued French arms shipments, France would accept Saudi Arabian oil, priced at some $34 a barrel, way above the going price, as payment.

In May, Mr. Aziz was back in Paris, asking for more arms. The French immediately agreed to send Iraq 29 Mirage jets and replacements for its depleted Exocet arsenal. But France agreed only to study the request for Super Etendards.

In June, though, the French apparently succumbed to Iraqi pressure. Le Monde reported that the Super Etendards would be ''lent'' for two years from France's stockpile of about 60 such jets in return for unspecified financial commitments and goodwill. The newspaper also reported that Iraqi pilots were to be trained on the use of the Super Etendards at a base in Brittany.

When these planes and pilots arrive in the Gulf, Iraq's military capabilities will be dramatically increased. Until now, Iraq has been able to fire its Exocet missiles only from French-built Puma helicopters.

Helicopters cannot easily penetrate Iranian air defenses. Super Etendards can.

''The Iranians are going to find them very difficult to defend against,'' said a military expert at the London International Institute for Strategic Studies. ''They could easily sink tanker traffic and that would no doubt anger the Iranians.''

The big question, then, is whether Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will use his new weapons against the Iranian installations. No one knows the answer to that question.

Many observers here say Mr. Hussein would have to be crazy to attack and run the risk of Iranian retaliation which would hobble his Gulf allies. Instead of putting the jets into action, they say he will merely use them as leverage to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table.

''Hussein would be completely discredited if the Iranians crippled his Arab allies,'' said the London-based analyst. ''The Arabs are definitely going to try and restrain him.''

But the same analyst also notes that the Iraqis are war-weary. With the military situation stalemated and revenues declining, this and other observers speculate that Hussein may feel squeezed enough to reason that he has no choice but to unleash his Super Etendards.

''Hussein is desperate,'' the London analyst said.

''Any country in that situation is tempted to go for broke,'' added an American diplomat in Paris.

The risks behind the loan are high - high enough apparently to make the French think twice as the delivery date approaches. Reports are circulating that some French military officials have been lobbying against going through with the deal.

But there are sure to be many others in the government arguing that maintaining good relations with Baghdad is worth the risk, and if there is a debate, it is hard to tell which side is winning.

''We don't talk about our arms sales or about internal government debates,'' a Defense Ministry official said. ''After all, how do you know that the planes have not already arrived?''

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