Iranian advances into Iraqi territory in the last few days are causing almost as much concern in nearby Kuwait and Persian Gulf states as in Iraq itself. This is the first time the Iranians have attacked so far south in the area known as the Shatt al Arab waterway. Kuwait lies on the western side of the narrow peninsula where the fighting is now taking place.
The fact that Iran has managed to dig in on the west side of the waterway, despite Iraq's air superiority, worries the Kuwaitis. For, however the move fits into Iran's military strategy against Iraq and however frequently Tehran says it has no hostile designs on Gulf states, the Kuwaitis are distinctly nervous at the prospect of waking up to find the Iranians on their doorstep. Even if Iran's claims are exaggerated and the Iraqi version of the current battle situation is true, Iranian troops are within artillery range of Kuwait.
Kuwait fears that such a direct interface could give Iran a powerful instrument for pressuring Gulf Arab states to stop supporting Iraq, financially and otherwise. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states are reported to have backed Iraq to the tune of more than $30 billion in cash and kind since the war began in 1980.
The Gulf states fear that Iran's new attack may open the possibility of direct military pressure. Another factor is the threat of internal subversion which they have felt for some time, because of the presence of large Shiite Muslim communities. The Shiites are coreligionists of Iran's Islamic revolutionaries.
Kuwait said Tuesday that Iran's ``attempt to occupy Iraqi territory shakes the stability and security of the Gulf as a whole, raises tensions in the region, and increases the chances of superpower intervention.''
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said the US viewed with ``grave concern'' the intensified fighting. He cited dangers posed to both neutral states and US regional interests by expansion of the conflict.
Although the importance of the Persian Gulf to the US has diminished the world oil glut, since the onset of diplomatic observers say the spread of the Iran-Iraq war could have major implications for US policy.
``Despite falling oil prices, we could be faced again with some of the old questions: What can the US do if a local power manages to change the balance of power in the region?'' says Shireen Hunter, a Middle East specialist in Washington. If the Iran-Iraq war spills over into Kuwait, she says, the US could have to choose between the risks of taking or not taking military action.
The Iranian offensive also comes as a blow to the hopes of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council which embarked on a low-profile peace initiatve in recent months. The Arab states hoped that by cultivating better ties with Tehran, they might draw Iran toward a more conciliatory position. Tehran welcomed the contacts -- but clearly saw them as a way of driving a wedge between Iraq and its Gulf supporters.
Foreign ministers from Iraq's moderate Arab supporters met in Baghdad late Wednesday and agreed to pursue efforts at the United Nations to stop the war.
But the Iranian offensive has also widened the rift in Arab ranks, since not all Arab states back Iraq. Libya Wednesday signaled support for the Iranian attack, and Syrian leaders were also in touch with Iran. These contacts led to bitter accusations of treachery leveled against Libya and Syria by Baghdad Thurdsday.
All previous Iranian offensives across the border have been in areas north of Basra, Iraq's major port city, at the northern end of the Shatt al Arab waterway. By storming across the waterway Sunday night, the Iranians may have hit on a weak spot in Iraq's defenses, which are concentrated around Basra and points north.
Some Western military observers say Iran launched the attack so far south in hopes of drawing Iraqi forces away from the Basra area, so it could strike a bigger blow against depleted defenses there. The ploy seems to have worked. Western intelligence sources said Wednesday that Iraq had rushed troops down from the Majnoon front. The military analysts were impressed by the amount of equipment Iran has transported across the waterway. They said the Iranians were trying to press forward beyond Faw, an abandoned Iraqi oil town.
Kuwait has often been singled out for hostile Iranian comment. Iran claims that Kuwait was considering yielding to Iraqi pressure to allow the Iraqi Navy to use the strategic Kuwaiti island of Bubiyan for military purposes. Iran reportedly sent an envoy to Kuwait to warn it against allowing Iraq to use Bubiyan. Monitor correspondent George D. Moffett III contributed to this report from Washington.