Weapons supplied by the United States to Iran may have already made a difference in the Persian Gulf war. The Iranian forces that captured Iraq's Faw peninsula last February were armed with US-made TOW armor piercing missiles, claims a senior Iraqi diplomat. As a result, ``we encountered stronger antitank defenses than we expected,'' in the battle for Faw, says Nizar Hamdoon, Iraqi ambassador to the US.
The Faw campaign was the last major action in a war that has since settled into a stalemate.
Though the battle occurred several months after the secret shipments of US weapons to Iran began, there has been little indication until now that the secret US aid was employed in the fighting.
TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) missiles, deadly weapons against Iraq's Soviet-built tanks, could well have given Iranian forces an edge on the Faw battlefield, say US military analysts.
But they add that it is unlikely the weapons were decisive in the battle, if they were in fact used there.
The Faw peninsula is a small appendage on Iraq's eastern border that dangles into the Persian Gulf. The only thing between it and Iran is the Shatt al Arab waterway, which Iranian troops crossed last February in small boats when they began their surprise attack.
``They caught the Iraqis off guard in an area where they didn't really have heavy forces,'' says Dr. William Olson, a security-affairs analyst at the US Army War College.
Thus it was not secret antitank weapons but ingenious infantry tactics that enabled Iran to seize the slice of Iraqi territory, says Dr. Olson.
Such infiltration techniques, combined with skillful use of artillery, have been Iran's military hallmarks throughout the war.
Despite the damaging loss of Faw, Iraq appears to have successfully bottled up the Iranian invaders on the narrow peninsula. Iran has long threatened a ``final offensive'' in which its forces break from Faw and head north toward the city of Basra, accompanied by other troops attacking from Iranian territory to the east.
But the offensive has yet to occur, and warfare on the dusty plains around Basra would be an altogether more difficult prospect for the Iranians than battles to date.
Despite US arms shipments, Iran still lacks the firepower for such sustained open-space fighting, concludes analyst Milton Viorst in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
Iraq, for its part, is well-stocked with heavy weapons, notably Soviet tanks. But revelations of US dealings with Iran raise the question of whether Iraq would ask for similar US aid, to establish a diplomatic symmetry if nothing else.
``We are satisfied with the material we get,'' says Ambassador Hamdoon. ``I'm not sure my government would be interested in getting any American equipment.''
Since the US and Iraq resumed diplomatic relations in 1982, US equipment aid has officially been limited to a few dozen civilian helicopters delivered as a goodwill gesture.
There are also reports that US intelligence information sometimes finds its way to Iraq through various clandestine channels.
There are hints that Iraq is becoming interested in US help with military logistics.
A Pentagon spokesman says a US firm, BDM International, is negotiating with Iraq about the possibility of providing computer and technical training for Iraqi military personnel.
As yet, BDM has not requested the US government license it would need to legally provide Iraq such services.