Iran's new approach to war, diplomacy. Two-pronged tactic aims to hurt Iraqi morale, reduce diplomatic isolation

Iran is trying out a new military and political strategy in its war with Iraq, say Iranian officials and Western observers in Tehran. On the battlefield, the new tactic consists of launching limited ground offensives to strike Iraqi forces, without having to sustain the cost of occupying large tracts of Iraqi territory. On the diplomatic front, Iran is redoubling efforts to improve ties with Arab nations, mainly Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Iran's new approach, according to both the Iranian and Western sources, is prompted by a desire to:

Reduce its isolation from Arab states in the region, and thus reduce Arab support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Damage the Iraqi military's morale without increasing Iran's already high human and economic costs.

The gains to Iran, if any, from both strategies are not yet clear cut. Iran seems to have made some headway in the sphere of economic cooperation with Arab Persian Gulf states. Claims of military gains, however, are not easily verifiable.

An Iranian journalist in Tehran says last week's brief occupation by Iranian troops of several small islands in the Shatt al Arab waterway, along the southern border, was part of this new military strategy. But in the meantime, Iranian leaders say, they are still preparing for a large, ``final'' offensive against Iraq.

During last week's fighting, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi tried to assuage Arab leaders' fears that they are Iran's next target. ``I solemnly say that after Saddam's departure there will be peace in this region,'' he said.

Another sign of Iran's conciliatory mood toward Arab states is the audience granted on Dec. 27 by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to the leader of a Saudi Arabian-backed Afghan resistance group. This meeting, foreign diplomats in Tehran say, shows that Iran is ready to collaborate with the Saudis to unify all Afghan resistance groups. In the past, Iran has only supported Afghan guerrillas loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini.

In another departure from past practice, Iran is also trying to unite under its leadership all Iraqi opposition leaders, including those holding secular views. A meeting of some 400 Iraqi oppositionists in Tehran last weekend released a statement saying: ``The future Iraqi regime will be in accordance with the wishes of the Iraqi people.''

The Western sources in Tehran say the fact that the communiqu'e did not call for the establishment of an Iranian-style ``Islamic republic'' in Iraq is a sign of Tehran's increasing willingness to compromise on the idea of exporting its political system.

Tehran's relationship with Syria, its staunchest Arab ally, is seen as another factor influencing Iran's moves. Syria is an arch enemy of Iraq. But it is also a secular, socialist state, and does not relish the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iraq or elsewhere.

After Iranian forces captured Faw Peninsula last February, Syria voiced concern that ``Persian'' (Iranian) troops might permanently occupy Arab land. Syrian diplomatic sources say that Iranian leaders finally decided that controlling large sectors of Iraq would tarnish Iran's image in the Arab world. The Iranians also reportedly believe it will be difficult for Iran to secure Hussein's departure as long as he is backed by Gulf countries. Hence Tehran's efforts to convince Gulf states to adopt a more neutral stance, by reassuring them of Iranian intentions toward the region.

Iranian field commanders are reportedly worried by the high human and financial costs of the six-year-old war. ``They have realized that controlling a strip of desert like the Faw Peninsula is of little strategic interest,'' says a Western military attach'e in Tehran. ``They may use it as a springboard to invade Basra. But even the fall of Basra wouldn't force Mr. Hussein to relinquish power in Baghdad. If well carried out, [Iran's] new hit-and-run strategy could prove efficient.''

The political results of Tehran's overtures to Iraq's Arab allies remain unclear. Gulf states cooperated with Iran on quota and pricing policies at the recent meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Saudi businessmen have reportedly helped Iran purchase American arms.Saudi Arabia also reportedly ships refined-oil products to Iran.

But Saudi Arabia and Kuwait do not seem entirely convinced of Iran's good intentions and continue to finance Iraq's war effort. Western intelligence sources say Gulf countries provide Iraq's Air Force with technical assistance. According to one such source, Iraqi bombers refueled at a military base in Qatar before their unprecedented Nov. 25 raid on Iran's Larak Island oil terminal, in the southern Gulf. On the way back, the Iraqi jets reportedly refueled at a Saudi airport.

The outcome of last week's fighting in the Shatt al Arab is also in doubt. Two days after its announced Dec. 25 ``limited attack'' on the islands, Tehran reported its troops had returned safely ``after having killed 9,500 Iraqi soldiers.'' Iraq denied this, and dispatches sent from the battlefield by Iranian journalists indicate Iran suffered heavy losses.

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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