Monitoring the military balance in the Gulf

An outside search for both carrot and stick has briefly overshadowed the recent escalation of the Iran-Iraq war. And the United States seems to be taking a higher profile in these efforts, in concert with Saudi Arabia.

It is too early to tell whether the disparate efforts will bear fruit and whether, specifically, the nearly four-year-old Gulf war can at least be kept from escalating anew.

More than a few Arab political analysts seem to remain skeptical, citing Iraq's presumed interest in sustaining the recent tit-for-tat air attacks on Gulf oil tankers in order to bring international pressure on the Iranians.

The analysts also note Western intelligence reports of a possibly imminent new Iranian land offensive in the war.

The Iraqis have, in recent days, announced a number of new air strikes on tankers near Iran's main oil-export facility, Kharg Island. And an attack on a chemical tanker Thursday near the Saudi coast was presumed to be another in a series of Iranian counterstrikes.

A combination of shippers' reluctance to risk their crews and cargoes, and increased insurance rates, has cut tanker traffic into the northern reaches of the Gulf in recent days.

The Reagan administration still seems leery of too muscular or visible an involvement in the crisis. Any major move in this direction could, among other things, risk opposition in Congress. But one senior official in Washington was quoted as confirming over the weekend US readiness to provide on an emergency basis some 400 antiaircraft missiles, as well as in-flight refueling capability, for the Saudi military.

In addition to the reported US move, various Arab leaders have been making a stab at diplomatic mediation in the so-far intractable conflict between the Iraqis and Iranians.

Two of these leaders - the Emir of the United Arab Emirates and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat - are more closely identified with the Iraqis in the conflict than with the Iranians.

No conclusive details of Syrian or other mediation efforts have so far been made public.

The main immediate effect of the Syrian bid - which followed a Saudi request to Damascus and included a visit to Tehran by Syrian Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam - has been to underscore the Syrians' resurgent influence within the Arab world. Also boosting the Syrians' regional position has been their successful bid to trim the Americans' direct role in neighboring Lebanon.

But the hope of some Western diplomats, meanwhile, is that Iran's post-Shah shortage of spare parts for its US-made jets could help preclude a full-scale ''tanker war'' in the Gulf.

The Saudis, for their part, have in recent years diverted a good chunk of their oil billions into outfitting a military that includes a sophisticated fleet of jets. Although Arab sources say Saudi Arabia still has a while to go before securing a top-rate force of pilots, they say Pakistani and other guest military personnel in the kingdom are capable of helping take up the slack.

One immediate, practical problem for the Saudis has been to react quickly enough to thwart the kind of hit-and-run raids apparently favored by the Iranians in the ''tanker war.'' This could be remedied in part by mid-air refueling capacity of the type the US is reported ready to provide. The shoulder-fired Stinger antiaircraft missiles also mentioned in Washington could, meanwhile, be based on ships in the Gulf.

Still there is a further, nonmilitary problem. The Saudis, with a significant Shiite Muslim population of their own in the east of the country, seem highly reluctant to get involved in even a limited shooting war with Iran's militant Shiite regime.

The main aim of Arab Gulf states remains to contain - not risk widening further - the Iran-Iraq conflict. The Saudis and their smaller Arab oil neighbors would much prefer carrot to stick amid the intensified efforts to nip the recent Iran-Iraq escalation in the bud.

Claude van England reports on Iran from Brussels:

The first order of business for Iran's new parliament, which convened Monday, will be to consider the apparently dramatic drop in oil exports caused by the Iraqi blockade of Iran's main oil terminal on Kharg Island.

Western oil company executives say that with Iran's oil exports already reduced by 50 percent, the Iranians have little room to maneuver.

Tehran has apparently dropped threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, realizing that if Western navies were to clear mines from the strategic waterway without a direct confrontation with Iranian forces, Iranian prestige would be hurt.

Tehran regarded the withdrawal of US Marines from Lebanon as an example of a victory of the ''deprived believers'' over ''Western atheist technology.'' According to Iranian fighters quoted in the Iranian press, the Iranians would thus like to avoid any military move that might give the US, France, or Britain the occasion to mount a limited military operation in the Gulf that would boost Western prestige.

Tehran will likely try to handle the crisis in such a way that would leave Western countries with only two alternatives, Western diplomats say. The first is for Western countries to bow to Iranian will and have Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ousted. The second is for large-scale Western military intervention in the Gulf and in Iran.

The hike in Lloyd's insurance rates last Friday for tankers going to Kharg Island - from 3 percent to 7.5 percent - is likely to reduce Iran's oil sales further.

''The prospect of Kharg coming to a complete standstill is serious,'' an oil dealer contacted in Rotterdam explains. ''To remain competitive on the market,'' this dealer says, ''the Iranians should lower their prices down to $24 per barrel, which would put them $5 under the OPEC price.''

A closure of Kharg facilities would result in the economic strangulation of Iran within two or three months, oil company executives and Western banking sources say. Those familiar with the psychology of the Iranian leaders say this prospect might well stiffen them instead of forcing them to the negotiating table.

For the Iranians, a way to break the present stalemate would be to launch a general ground offensive with the hope of knocking down the Iraqi Army once and for all. Judging from past experience, US intelligence sources say this attack might well be launched on the eve of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan which starts on June 1. Two years ago the Iranians tried and failed to surround the Iraqi town of Basra at the start of Ramadan.

Preparations for this offensive have been under way for several weeks in complete secrecy, according to intelligence sources. It is not known, however, in what sector of the 700-mile front along the Iran-Iraq border the drive will take place.

The Iranian fighters will once again try to surround Basra, some Western diplomats say. Others say they will attempt to pierce Iraqi lines further north, east of the Iraqi town of Mandali.

Exiled opponents of the regime say the long-awaited push has been delayed because of dissension between regular Army officers and Revolutionary Guard chiefs. There is no concrete evidence of these alleged rifts. But it is plausible that some Army officers are warning political leaders of the risks of failure inherent in such an offensive. The Iraqis are also understood to have told French diplomats that they would respond to a new Iranian land attack by firing their newly acquired Soviet-made SS-21 missiles at Kharg Island facilities.

The Tehran press remains discreet about Gulf developments. Iraqi claims Friday of having sunk eight vessels in the Khor Musa Channel have not been mentioned. And Iranian officials have acknowledged none of their Air Force raids on oil tankers.

But on Saturday, Tehran Radio reported a rare event: that Ayatollah Montazeri , considered the heir-apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini's position as spiritual guide, had come to Tehran to confer with Khomeini. No details of the talks were given.

The inauguration of the 270-member parliament brought evidence of a violently anti-American mood in Tehran. Deputies and Cabinet members arriving at the parliament were greeted by a crowd shouting ''Death to America.'' Indeed, Iranians view the latest Gulf attacks as new signs of American determination to bring the Islamic republic to its knees.

On Saturday, Ayatollah Montazeri reminded a group of Revolutionary Guards that, from the beginning of what he called the ''imposed war,'' Iranian leaders have accused the US government of having incited Iraqi President Hussein to send his Army to Iran.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic republic has survived several international crises, which have all reinforced the anti-American feelings of its leaders. Iranians contend they are now in a position of strength to confront not only the United States, but also France and Britain, which are nicknamed ''second-class powers.''

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