For Iranians, the start of a new year - which falls this coming Saturday according to the Iranian solar calendar - is traditionally a time of rejoicing and family reunions. But this Novroz (new year) promises to be more of a reminder of grim realities - a reminder that the gruelling 6-year war with Iraq continues to exact a high a toll and that Iranian hopes of achieving victory this winter have not been fulfilled. Despite Iranian leaders' public claims that they would decisively defeat Iraq by the end of the current Iranian year, Iran's long-vaunted ``final offensive'' has not materialized. And, despite Iranian gains made in fierce fighting in January and February, Iraqi troops are hanging tough around their southern port city of Basra.
According to Western diplomatic and intelligence sources in the region, the intense battles earlier this year so exhausted both countries that Iranian and Iraqi leaders tacitly agreed to a deescalation of the fighting. On Feb. 19 Iraq halted its devastating air raids against Iranian civilian targets; a few days later Iran announced the end of its ``Karbala-5'' offensive against Basra.
But ``the present lull,'' says a senior European diplomat in Brussels, ``favors the Iranians, who have never been so close to the final victory and are preparing new large assaults against Iraqi positions all along the front.''
According to a group of French reporters recently returned from the southern battlefront, Iran is building new roads leading to the frontlines on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The journalists reported seeing miles of military convoys carrying troop and ammunition reinforcments to the front.
An intelligence officer with a NATO Army also says the Iranians have begun digging canals east of Basra. The aim, he says, is to drain part of the Hawizeh Marshes which would deprive the Iraqis of one of their natural defenses. There are also reports that Iran has installed land-based missile systems near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow - and only - shipping entry into the Persian Gulf.
Farther afield from the war front, Iranian authorities are encouraging Tehran's residents to build air raid shelters and bunkers, while municipal workers erect sand-bag walls along main avenues.
No timetable has been set for an offensive, says an Iranian official contacted in Tehran. However, he says, ``Our Revolutionary Guards' next drive will be two-pronged:
``They will continue their advance on the ... eastern bank of the Shatt al-Arab river. Their aim is to take positions just in front of Basra and have the Baghdad-Basra-Kuwait road under the fire of their artillery.
``They will also try to use recently captured islands in the Shatt al-Arab as springboards to establish a bridgehead on the western bank of the waterway and occupy the Basra-Faw road. ''
If the latter move were to succeed, European military analysts say, it would be disastrous for Iraq. Iran's capture of the Basra-Faw road would cut off Iraqi troops defending the Faw Peninsula from the rest of the Iraqi Army and would leave them vulnerable to attacks by Iranian troops that are already occupying southern Faw.
One analyst also says he believes any future air battles will play a crucial role. The past three months' fighting has shown that Iraqi air superiority was damaged by Iran's new anti-aircraft defense, which allegedly consists of US- and Chinese-made missile systems.
Iraqi officials, for their part, have repeatedly warned that they will respond to any major new Iranian offensive by bombarding residential areas. Western military attach'es in Baghdad say Iraq has received new long-range Soviet ground-to-ground missiles which would allow it to strike at all Iran's major cities.
According to a Tehran-based Western diplomat, ``the Iraqi Air Force lost more than one-tenth of its planes above the Fish Lake, southeast of Basra,'' in the fighting earlier this year. ``Among the fighters and bombers shot down by Iran's air defense are several ultra-modern French-built Mirage F-1s and one Soviet-made MIG-25.''
Since mid February, Iran has launched a series of limited attacks against Iraq in the sout. And, in the snow-bound mountains on the northern front, Iran launched its ``Karbala-7'' offensive earlier this month. That push brought Iranian soldiers 12 miles into Iraqi territory.
But diplomats in both Tehran and Baghdad say these thrusts are only aimed at keeping up pressure on the Iraqi Army and do not represent major breakthroughs.