Iran is determined to launch soon new onslaughts against Iraq. According to several officials in Tehran, Iranian observers, and Western diplomatic sources, the new offensives would aim to: Reach the strategic Basra-Baghdad and Basra-Kuwait roads, to cut supply and communication lines to and from the southern Iraqi major port city of Basra.
Draw Iraqi forces into bloody battles in an effort to convince Iraqi officers that the only way to prevent heavy human casualties would be to stage a coup against President Saddam Hussein.
Informed Western observers detect a hardening of Iran's attitude toward pursuing the war while Mr. Hussein stays in power. Since Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, Tehran has insisted that Hussein be removed from power before it would consider a settlement. Last August, parliament speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani moderated the demand for an ``Islamic republic'' in Baghdad, and said Iran would accept Hussein's replacement by another leader. Last month, however, Mr. Rafsanjani said that Iraq's ruling socialist Baath Party should also be toppled.
Western observers are divided over whether this renewed Iranian determination would lead to a clear-cut military victory. But even without a decisive victory, Iranian sources say, further gains against Iraq would dim the prospect of improving US-Iran ties in the near future.
``If we're victorious soon, the pro-American lobby here will be swept away and hard-liners will have a free hand to export the revolution,'' said the foreign news editor of one of Tehran's major dailies. But ``if the war drags on,'' he said, ``those favoring a rapprochement with the US will probably have the best of the argument ....'' He said this was because drawn out fighting would support the belief of some officials that Iran is not capable of winning the war without outside help - including US or Western arms.
Recently, at a European ambassador's residence in Tehran, the main topics of conversation were Iran's thrust last month in the Basra area, and whether or not US arms sales to Iran played a significant part in it. Opinion was divided.
``Selling arms to the mullahs was a grave mistake,'' the host said. ``But don't overdramatize things; the Iranians have won a battle but the war is not over.''
A group of Western reporters who recently visited the war front said they had been impressed by the strength of Iran's infantry. But, a military attach'e said, ``As long as the Iranians don't have a good air force they won't be able to reach any important strategic target inside Iraq.''
A Western oil company executive with long experience in the Gulf region disagreed strongly. ``The fact is that Iraqis are no longer capable of withstanding Iranian drives,'' he said. ``But [Western diplomats] don't want to acknowledge it out of fear that it might further weaken Iraqi troops' morale.''
This executive also said that Iran has recently managed to boost its oil production to 2.2 million barrels a day, a development which would enable it to sustain a new round in the war of attrition.
Some Western diplomats speculate that Iran may have received more from the US than the publicly acknowledged 2,000 TOW anti-tank missiles and and spare parts for Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. Tehran residents have noticed increased Iranian Air Force activity in the past months, with Iran reportedly carrying out attack missions inside Iraq, and defending cities from attack.
An embassy attach'e, who said he had recently sighted US-made F-14 fighter jets in operation, wondered aloud ``where the Iranians find spares to keep those aircraft in the air?'' The F-14, sold to Iran under the Shah, is in service only in the US and Iranian air forces.
According to one Iranian official, ``Throughout 1986 the US administration sold directly or indirectly, or turned a blind eye to the sale by third parties of spare parts and ammunitions for Iran's F-4, F-5, and F-14 combat aircrafts.'' Six other officials made similar claims, which could not be independently verified.
But Western diplomats confirm Iranian assertions that their armament industry is growing, and reportedly specializes in duplicating Western or East-bloc designed weapons. But not always without problems: On Dec. 27, an explosion shook Tehran, which Western intelligence sources say, resulted from the accidental ignition of a locally made rocket booster.
The backbone of Iran's war effort thrust remains its infantry. Ground offensives are spearheaded by elite units of the Revolutionary Guards, professionally trained volunteers. The Guards are backed up by the Jihad Sazandegy (``reconstruction'' brigade), the equivalent of an army engineers corps. Conquered areas are then occupied by lightly trained volunteers of all ages known as basijis who, it is widely acknowledged, suffer the heaviest casualties.
The reason, a European diplomat said, is that ``by the time those volunteers arrive at the front, the Iraqis have reorganized their defenses and throw everything they have at them.'' This diplomat also said Iraq used chemical weapons and ``gas shells'' to contain Iran's recent push.
In recent weeks, the Iraqi Air Force has increased bombing raids on Iran's poorly defended cities. Iran's official press agency said that, since Jan. 10, more than 3,000 civilians have been killed in those raids. Western observers in Tehran say that such raids, instead of cowing Iranians, actually reinforce popular support for the government.
Mr. van England recently visited Tehran and the southern war front.