Uncomfortable entanglement in the Gulf

PRESIDENT REAGAN'S venture into the Gulf has reached the point where American military forces in that body of water are now being manipulated from Baghdad and Tehran. Washington has lost full control. To understand why this is so, let us start with main facts about the military situation in the Gulf. First, Iran has a population of 45 million. Iraq has only 15 million. This means that Iran has a decisive advantage in manpower which the Ayatollah can, and does, spend freely on the battlefield. It gives him a decided military advantage in the land war.

But, Iraq has the advantage in the air. It has been supplied with first-class fighter aircraft and maintenance and spare parts by both Russia and France. The ratio of fighters and ground attack and interceptor aircraft is about three to one in favor of Iraq. Iraq has the ability to attack Iran's oil export facilities in the Gulf. Iran cannot retaliate against Iraq's oil exports which go entirely by pipeline either through Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Iraq's only offensive capability is its superiority in the air and its ability to use this against Iran's oil exports. All of Iran's oil goes to the outside world through the Gulf, mostly by tankers loading at Kharg Island. This is a tempting target for Iraq because Iran must sell oil to buy the weapons for another land offensive. Iran could be strangled economically, but cannot be defeated on the ground.

It is a curious military situation in which the strengths and weaknesses of the combatants are dissimilar. There has been nothing quite like it since Roman gladiatorial combats where a man with net and trident was pitted against another with sword, shield, and helmet.

Add a third element to the situation. Because of the above, a truce aids one belligerent more than the other. A truce allows Iran to export more oil, buy more weapons and get ready for another ground offensive, while it denies to Iraq the opportunity to hamper the buildup by attacking the oil exports.

The United States has moved into this curious and unusual situation by flagging Kuwaiti tankers and sending US naval vessels into the Gulf to protect those tankers.

In this situation almost anything the US does helps one or the other belligerent. To seek to revive the truce would be to aid Iran. To repel an attack from Iranian gunboats would be to help Iraq.

Thus the control over events in the Gulf is now largely in the hands of Arabs in Baghdad or Persians in Tehran, not in the hands of Americans in Washington.

This repeats the situation which prevailed in Lebanon in 1983 when the US, having sent in its Marines in the first instance to help restore and keep the peace, found itself a target in a civil war.

In this case Iraq can use the US presence in the Gulf to Iraq's advantage by doing what it did this week. It attacked oil tankers fueling at Kharg Island. This causes the Iranians to wish to retaliate. They can so do by attacking tankers carrying oil from any Arab country in the Gulf because all the Gulf Arabs help Iraq in one way or another.

Thus Iraq can pull at the Iranian trigger for an attack on US naval forces. But then Iran has an opportunity to decide whether to let the trigger be released. It has its excuse. But it can meanwhile in effect say to Washington, either you cause the Iraqis to suspend the attacks or we will attack you.

The combination of the reflagged tankers and the US naval escorts becomes a pawn in the Iraq-Iran war. Each can manipulate the US presence.

This then raises the question of the US purpose in this intervention. Is the purpose to help Iraq win the war, or at least survive the war? Is the purpose to bring about a truce and then a peace settlement? Or is it primarily to keep the Russians out of the Gulf?

It has not been articulated clearly. Hence US intervention becomes a pawn to be manipulated by the two belligerents. The unarticulated intervention in Lebanon led to a US withdrawal.

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