Despite its recent offensive, Iran has not gained the upper hand in the Persian Gulf war, according to a number of American analysts. It is not clear how much ground Iran has gained, US sources say. The Iraqi city of Basra is being shelled heavily, but it was well within range of Iranian guns even before the current attack.
``The Iraqis should be able to hold,'' says William Olson, a professor at the United States Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. ``The question is their morale.''
Those with access to US government information say Iranian forces are now within six to eight miles of Basra proper. They say this constitutes a tactical victory for the Iranians, but that the city's main defensive line still lies ahead of them.
The offensive is characterized by US analysts not as a final offensive, but as another move in an Iranian strategy of grinding military pressure on Iraq.
``How long can Iran keep up the pressure? How long can Iraq withstand it?'' says a former high Reagan administration State Department official. ``I'd still bet on Iraq.''
In the Gulf conflict, Iraq is far superior in quantity and quality of heavy military armament, while Iran has numbers and a certain fighting spirit on its side. US military officers have long said that in well-dug defensive positions Iraq's firepower advantage should prove decisive.
But analysts also acknowledge that they have consistently underestimated Iran's determination to continue waging the war. Scraping together stocks of weapons from secret American, Chinese, and Portuguese shipments, the Iranian military has shown great ingenuity in attack, they say.
``You cannot rule out the possibility of an Iranian victory,'' says R.K. Ramazani, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
Professor Ramazani is less certain than many other US specialists about the ability of Iraq to stand up to Iranian pressure. He says the current attack is part of an Iranian strategy of ``nibbling war,'' in which the Iranian military husbands its resources for carefully timed blows with fairly limited goals. In this way a constant political and psychological pressure is kept up, he explains.
Fighting between Iran and Iraq has been intensifying since late summer. In July and August Iraq used its air superiority to step up attacks on Iranian targets, hitting oil terminals previously thought out of Iraqi range. With oil prices declining at the time, Iran seemed to be in increasingly dire economic straits.
The ability of Iran to withstand Iraq's strategic bombing is one of the unanswered questions on which the war will turn. But with disclosures that the ``Great Satan,'' America, was secretly shipping arms, the morale of Iranian armed forces has soared, according to US experts. In addition, the TOW antitank missiles and Hawk antiaircraft missiles have probably added substantially to Iranian military capability. The Iraqi ambassador to the US says his country's forces have already encountered the new US weapons on the battlefield.
[US officials yesterday continued to deny published reports that some U.S. forces had been placed on heightened alert because of the fighting. ``I don't know of any change in our [military] posture in either the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf or anywhere,'' said Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims.]
The outcome of the current battle depends heavily on two things, say experts: how long the Iranian Army will be able to stand the heavy casualties it is taking, and how Iraq as a country will react to what is in effect the loss of Basra.
Skill in infantry tactics has been one of the hallmarks of Iran in the war. But casualties in recent days have reportedly been running 3 to 1 against Iran, a level of loss it is difficult to believe that Iran will be able to maintain.
``The carnage does seem to be really substantial,'' the former State Department official says.
Reportedly thousands of Basra citizens have fled in the face of the Iranian attack. It is doubtful Iranian troops could physically conquer the city, US experts say. Its defenses are too strong, and it is simply too large to occupy. But as the foe inches closer and shells continue to rain down, it could well cease to function as a city in any meaningful sense.
This won't automatically lead to political pressure that would oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, says Ramazani. But it would definitely be a ``traumatic influence'' on the Hussein regime, he says.
Without conquering Basra, Iranian forces could still end up entrenched in positions that threaten Iraq's neighbors to the south, American allies Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.