Iran signals possible change in tactics after shootdown of its jets

Iran seems leery of risking an air showdown with Saudi Arabia in the widening Persian Gulf war. Signs from Tehran suggest the Iranians are weighing a change in tactics in the Gulf following the Saudis' downing of at least one Iranian warplane there.

The Iranians have so far responded to the air incident with unaccustomed restraint. And they've denied any plans to try other means of shutting the waterway to anything but ships bound for Iraq.

A report Wednesday in a Tehran newspaper formalized that ban, declaring a ''maritime exclusion zone'' at the mouth of the Gulf and saying Iraqi-bound ships would be stopped, boarded, and seized.

But since Iraq's small outlet on the Gulf has long been effectively closed by the war, the report raised the possibility that ships bound for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait might also be affected. It is ships near the coasts of those countries that have been hit by Iranian jets in the ''tanker war.''

Western analysts assume the Iranians will try to find some way to keep the pressure on the Saudis and Kuwaitis. This is because Iraq has finally managed in its air strikes on Iran-bound ships to trim Iranian oil exports from the Gulf.

Similarly, the change in the war's oil-export equation is fueling continued speculation that Iran will soon mount a major ground offensive against the Iraqis.

So far, foreign diplomats' and intelligence officials' predictions of such an offensive have proved premature. The widespread expectation was that a new offensive would coincide with last weekend's start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Instead, the last few days have seen an escalation of air strikes against major towns in Iraq and Iran.

On the tanker front, at time of writing Thursday, all had been quiet since the Saudis' downing of at least one Iranian plane two days earlier. Regardless of how the Iranians may feel, Iraq has an interest in seeing the tit-for-tat air strikes on oil tankers continue in order to keep domestic economic and international diplomatic pressure on Iran to negotiate.

But the initial Iranian response to the air tussle with Saudi Arabia did suggest Tehran has had some second thoughts about its own Air Force's counterstrikes against tankers near Saudi shores.

In a formal protest, the Iranians disputed a Saudi assertion that the downed warplane had been in Saudi air space at the time of the incident. Iran said the plane was over international waters.

Although the note did vow a forceful response to any further such Saudi move, its overall tone was one of relative restraint - if only by implying that the Saudis would have been justified in the shootdown had Iran's plane really ventured into their waters.

Similarly, reports from Washington said Iran, after briefly scrambling more jets to confront the Saudis, backed off when additional Saudi planes showed up.

Still, more than a few Western analysts suspect the Iranians may test the Saudis again, or, more likely, target shipping bound for Kuwait, which has a smaller and less sophisticated antiaircraft arsenal. Among the imponderables on this score is whether, as Arab officials have suggested, the Saudis would react similarly to an Iranian air strike near allied Kuwait.

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