Iran's latest offensive against Iraq may drastically alter the course of the Persian Gulf war, Arab and Western analysts in the Mideast say. A massive offensive against Iraq's southern front has brought Iranian forces closer than ever to capturing Basra, Iraq's second largest city. Iran's advances have called in to question again just how much punishment Iraq can absorb.
If Iran does capture Basra, the nightmare scenario of moderate Arab regimes - a clear-cut Iranian victory over Iraq - will have new meaning.
Basra's fall would be a strategic and psychological gain for Iran, Arab analysts in Jordan and Cairo say. Strategically, Basra is important because it stands between Iran and some of Iraq's most productive oil fields. It also lies between Iran and oil-rich Kuwait, the tiny Gulf state that has helped Iran's enemy through billions of dollars of military aid.
But Iran's most important achievement, should it capture Basra, would be a psychological one, the analysts say.
``The most serious impact would be internal in Iraq,'' a Western diplomat in Amman says. ``The Iraqis would have to absorb the tremendous shock of a major defeat on Iraqi soil.''
President Saddam Hussein's government has long feared that if Iran did take Basra, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would immediately establish a rival regime of Iraqi dissidents there, who would proclaim the ``Islamic Republic of Iraq.''
The loss of Basra could severely demoralize the battered Iraqi Army which, since Iraq began the war in September 1980, has fought off ``human waves'' of Iranian troops and Revolutionary Guards in the marshes of the southern front.
``There is always the possibility that at some point, the Iraqi Army could just vanish, vaporize like the Russians' did in 1917,'' one Western analyst says.
``We are very nervous,'' said a senior Jordanian official. ``President Saddam Hussein has assured [Jordan's] King Hussein that everything is under control, but we are very nervous.''
Iran launched its latest offensive in the Shatt al Arab marshes the night of Jan. 8-9. By Jan. 17, Iranian troops had crossed the disputed waterway that separates the two nations.
The official Iranian news agency reported that thousands of Revolutionary Guards had advanced to within 500 yards of Basra's suburbs. Western reporters who were in Basra until Friday, reported that thousands of civilians were fleeing north toward Baghdad to escape Iran's blanket shelling of the port city.
If the Iranians capture Basra, their forces would also be less than 100 miles from Kuwait City, where sometimes the shelling can already be heard. Kuwait is scheduled to host the Islamic Conference Organization summit Jan. 26. The recent fighting, Arab diplomats say, has made the summit more important than ever.
``If the fighting continues, that would be a serious turn of events, but even the fall of Basra would not necessarily cancel the summit,'' said Egyptian Ambassador Amre Moussa, a member of Egypt's delegation to the summit.
The conference agenda, Ambassador Moussa said, is expected to be dominated by discussions of how to end the Iran-Iraq war.
The latest round of fighting has proved embarassing for the United States, analysts say, because it comes only weeks after it was disclosed that the Reagan administration covertly sold arms to Iran between September 1985 and May 1986.
There also have been news reports form Washington, strongly denied by the State Department, that US intelligence agencies gave false information on Iranian troop concentration to the Iraqis.
Last week, Iraq's deputy prime minister Taha Yassin Ramadan told the English language Jordan Times that misleading intelligence reports given to Iraq by the US were responsible for Iran's capture of Iraq's Faw Peninsula last February. That victory was regarded as a major symbolic, if not strategic, win for Iran.
In this month's fighting, Iraq has been foced to spend more effort than usual in taking out Iran's US-made HAWK anti-aircraft batteries and has acknowledged losing at least seven airplanes. More than 200 HAWK missiles were among the arms shipped to Iran by the US and Israel.
Although Western analysts said that Iran may have suffered 40,000 dead or wounded soldiers in the latest offensive, and Iraq may have borne 10,000 casualties, neither side appeared ready to ease up by Monday.
Indeed, reports were that each side was rushing reinforcements to both the southern front and to the mountainous region several hundred miles north of Basra, where the Iranians have opened a second front. The Iranians announced Monday that they had launched a fresh drive toward Basra Sunday night.
In a stream of communiqu'es, Iraq denied most of the Iranian claims. The Iraqis acknowledged that Iranian forces crossed the Shatt al Arab, but insisted that Iraqi troops pinned the invaders down near the manmade Fish Lake, killing thousands.
Iraq unleashed its vastly superior airpower on Iranian cities over the weekend. Iraq made its first airstrikes in two years against the Iranian capital Tehran, and flew dozens of bombing raids on several other Iranian cties, including the holy city Qom. All told, the Iranians claim 2,000 of their civilians were killed or wounded by Iraqi bombs or missiles.
The fierceness of the Iraqi response to Iran's assault is proof, according to Iranian President Ali Khamenei, of Iraq's desperation. ``The throat of the aggressor Iraqi regime has never been so tightly gripped,'' he said Sunday in Tehran.
Reuters reports: Turkey, which shares borders with Iran and Iraq, Monday denied a report that the US had sent extra warplanes to Turkey for possible intervention in the Iran-Iraq war.
Reuters reported that a senior Turkish official said some F-111 bombers were in Turkey for a routine bombing exercise.
Referring to a report in the West German weekly Der Spiegel that three squadrons of planes were here to prepare for possible intervention in the Persian Gulf, he said, ``It's not true.''
The official said the F-111s were flying from the Incirlik base in southern Turkey, where two squadrons of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing are permanently based. The official would not say how long the F-111s would be in Turkey.