Iran is raising the stakes in the Iran-Iraq war. The recent surge in Iranian attacks on commercial ships in the Persian Gulf is heightening tensions and may well lead, Western diplomats in Tehran say, to some limited confrontations with superpower warships now in the area.
Two reasons are being given for the Iranian actions.
On the one hand, Western observers in Tehran say, Iran's leaders have come to the conclusion they cannot win the war as long as Iraq enjoys the backing of Arab neighbors, primarily Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran has stepped up pressure on the Kuwaitis, placing missiles on Iraq's occupied Faw Peninsula near Kuwait and intensifying attacks on ships leaving and entering Kuwaiti ports.
On the other hand, domestic political considerations may be pushing Iran's leaders to find justification for their failure so far to win the war, according to a senior European diplomat who often travels to the region.
``The Iranian leadership has failed to fulfill the promise it had made to its people to defeat the Iraqi Army for good before the end of last winter. It is now trying to explain to its population that victory will take a little longer because of United States, French, and Soviet support to Iraq,'' the diplomat says.
``A direct confrontation between Iran and the superpowers in the Gulf could thus serve Iranian leaders' propaganda purposes,'' he adds. ``For the first time since the war began, there are Iranian strategists who believe their country and the Islamic regime may benefit from limited confrontation in the Gulf itself.''
At the center of the present controversy is the role played in the Iran-Iraq war by tiny, vulnerable Kuwait.
Kuwait has been Iraq's staunchest ally since the beginning of the war, selling nearly 110,000 barrels of oil daily on behalf of Iraq and providing President Saddam Hussein's government with an undisclosed amount of financial aid each year.
While Kuwait has taken a continuously tough line against Iran, Saudi Arabia - which also financially supports Iraq - has pursued a more ambivalent policy. It has kept its lines open to Iran and provided it with at least one large cargo of refined oil products
Since January, Iran has attacked 16 ships leaving or entering Kuwaiti ports. An Iranian diplomat contacted in Paris said his country's aim is to force Kuwait to withdraw its support for Iraq.
Since Iraqi ships lost direct access to Gulf waters in the early years of the war, Iraq has had to rely heavily on Kuwaiti ports and overland routes to import goods and military supplies.
A Tehran-based European diplomat says, ``Iranian troops have for the past years launched several unsuccessful attempts to cut the Baghdad-Basra-Kuwait highway. They are now trying to force the Kuwaitis to close the road themselves.''
Last week, gunboats believed to be Iranian attacked a Soviet cargo ship heading for Kuwait. Two days later, Iran's President Ali Khamenei accused both the Soviet Union and the United States of siding with Iraq in the war. Mr. Khamenei contended that American and Soviet leaders had decided that the Iraqi regime would survive only if it received military assistance from them.
The increase in attacks has led to Kuwaiti agreement with the Soviet Union to lease three ships, which would be given Soviet naval protection. The US and Kuwait are close to an agreement that would put 11 of Kuwait's ships under the US flag and provide them protection by US warships. Thus, the potential for clashes between the Iranian Navy and Air Force and superpower Navy vessels is growing, Western diplomats contacted in Tehran say.
However, Western observers in Tehran agree that a flareup in the Gulf would in no way threaten world peace. The Soviet Union and the US have similar positions on the need to bring the war to an end, and in a Moscow meeting on March 17, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Michael Armacost agreed to avoid open rivalry in the Gulf.
But, those observers contend, even limited fighting may have devastating consequences for Arab countries bordering the Gulf.
The city of Kuwait, for example, is within easy range of Iranian Silkworm missiles deployed on the Faw Peninsula. The Iranians also have deployed missiles on the eastern shore of the Strait of Hormuz.
An Iranian official contacted in Tehran denied his country's leadership is seeking a head-on clash in the Gulf waters for domestic propaganda purposes. Recent US and Soviet warnings to Iran, the official said, are ``a huge bluff.''
His country's leaders, he contended, know that US, French, and Soviet forces won't intervene directly in the war at the moment. But he added, ``We won't flinch. We will destroy the Iraqi regime and there will be no free navigation in the Gulf as long as the superpowers will allow Iraq to strike at all loading facilities on Kharg Island. We will continue to check cargos entering the Persian Gulf to see that they don't carry weapons for Iraq.'' (In the past year, the Iranians have stopped some 1,200 ships near the Strait of Hormuz in an effort to prevent supplies for Iraq from getting through.)
Such Iranian toughness may pay off, says a British source. The superpowers have urged Iraq to reduce its attacks on Gulf shipping. Until recently, Iraq had carried out more attacks on ships than Iran, but the Iraqi attacks were confined largely to vessels moving to and from Iran's Kharg Island oil facilities.
The present crisis comes at a time when Iran's isolation on the diplomatic scene is greater than ever, according to Western diplomats in that country.
Last month, the Arab League passed a resolution calling on Iran to accept a limited cease-fire in the Gulf war. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council have made it clear they want the war to come to an end as soon as possible. The Soviet Union, the US, and France are ready to support an international peacekeeping force in the area. Several associations of ship owners have asked the UN to set up such a force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf.
Yet, observers caution, Iran, when isolated, becomes more dangerous and tends to take an even tougher stance.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.