Iran's leaders have concluded that if they don't win a clear victory in their war with Iraq, the survival of their regime would be at stake. And therefore, analysts say, Iran's Islamic leaders remain determined to win the war by military means.
A Western diplomat here says that President Ali Khamenei recently told him in a private conversation that he fears that a failure to achieve military victory over Iraq may lead to the crumbling of the present Islamic regime.
The speaker of parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, also indicated this in a recent speech. Referring to numerous mediation efforts since the war began in 1980, he said, ``the peace they [the mediators] want for us is worse than war because under such a peace there would be no hope for victory.
``This would dismay our people and would be a serious threat to our revolution . . . .''
But are the Iranians capable of winning the nearly five-year-old war? Western diplomats in Tehran are divided on this issue.
Some say the steady flow to Iraq of sophisticated military hardware from Western and Eastern nations has definitely turned the momentum of the war in Iraq's favor. Last week Iraqi planes attacked Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal, exports about 90 percent of its crude oil. Independent reports confirm that two main jetties on the island suffered serious damage, but that the terminal is still operable.
Apparently in retaliation, an unidentified aircraft believed to be Iranian, fired rockets at a Belgian tanker in the Persian Gulf yesterday. Iran has never claimed responsibility for attacks on Gulf shipping, but has often threatened to disrupt oil exports of Arab Gulf nations that support Iraq if the Iraqis tried to destroy Kharg.
However, other Western diplomats say that the Iranian fighters' religious zeal may, in the long run, help them pierce Iraqi lines.
The Iranian fighters' strength resides in their high morale. All the volunteer fighters this reporter spoke with while visiting the Hawizeh marshes on the warfront appeared relaxed and confident of a final victory. These fighters say their strategy is two-pronged. First they will cut the Baghdad-Basra highway, forcing Iraq to rush reinforcement troops to the area. Iran's regular Army would then launch a second thrust from the Meimak heights area, where Iranian fighters are now less than 100 miles from Baghdad.
A military attach'e with a Western embassy in Tehran says that Iranian troops are 21 miles inside Iraq in some areas north of the marshes. ``But for them, the most difficult -- which is taking the [Baghdad-Basra] highway and retaining control over it -- remains to be done,'' the attach'e explains. ``And the deeper they advance inside Iraq, the longer their communication and supply lines become.''
Lack of sophisticated armaments is apparently a great weakness of the Iranians.
On the front this reporter saw only light weaponry, Soviet-made Katyusha rocket launchers, mortars, and outdated antiaircraft artillery. But in Tehran, an Iranian official asserted that Iranian troops are not short of equipment. ``The only thing we need now,'' he said, ``is ground-to-air missiles that could down Iraqi Soviet-made MIG-25s which fly at an altitude of more than 65,000 feet. That explains why Iraqi aircraft could bombard Tehran last spring with total impunity.''
Another Iranian official contends that the Iranian Air Force is not as depleted as Western observers say. ``We just bought 40 new F-4 and F-5 fighter jets,'' he says. This deal was confirmed by an Arab businessman who regularly travels to Tehran. This source says the aircraft, which were dismantled and shipped in crates, were sold to Iran by Argentina.
However, ``those F-4s and F-5s are outdated compared with the very sophisticated MIGs and Mirages the Iraqis have acquired,'' a Western diplomat says. ``Meanwhile, it must be said that, aside from the Israelis, the Iranian pilots remain the best in the entire Middle East. The Iranians have also been very good at buying military hardware on the international market -- and this in spite of all embargos. For example, their entire flotilla of boats in the marshes is equipped with US- and Japanese-made engi nes.''
Iranian Army troops were not evident in the marshlands. They are ``inefficient here,'' said a volunteer fighter from the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. A regular soldier in the southern city of Ahvaz said he and his comrades were protecting oil fields and strategic roads and railways.
Since Iran's first drive into Iraqi territory during the summer of 1982, the regular Army has been reluctant to venture into the marshland which many regular officers see as a dead end, foreign diplomats in Tehran say. But in other sectors of the front, such as the central Meimak area, regular soldiers are said to be on the first combat line.
The regular Army apparently provides heavy artillery cover for the volunteer infantry in the marshes and Iranian jets are said to patrol the border against intruding Iraqi aircraft 24 hours a day.
Both Iranian officials and foreign diplomats in Tehran assume that a large, successful Iranian ground offensive would be countered by the Iraqis with chemical weapons and renewed bombardments of civilian areas. But, Iranian officials contend, such Iraqi attacks in the past proved to be highly ineffective.
A European ambassador disagrees. ``Iraqi air raids over Iranian cities were murderous and caused panic among the population,'' he says. ``By mid-June the Iraqis suspended their attacks against civilian targets because Iranian retaliatory shelling of Iraqi border towns with long-range artillery were murderous as well.
``The international community, too, pressured the Iraqi government, asking it to stop its air raids.''