Iran has both military and diplomatic objectives for its expected land offensive against Iraq. It not only seeks further advances into Iraqi territory, but also wants to put pressure on the United Nations Security Council to brand Iraq as the aggressor in the seven-year Gulf war. This is the view of Western diplomats in Tehran. In a speech only last week, Iran's Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani hinted at this objective: ``International organizations will alter their stance on the war only after we deal a new military blow to the Iraqis.''
Iranian officials contacted in Tehran and in Europe view the diplomatic round following the Security Council's July 20 call for a cease-fire as over. One of the main Iranian demands before accepting that resolution was that Iraq be clearly branded as the one who started the war.
Both Western diplomats and Iranian officials indicate that the attack - expected in coming weeks - will not be the long-awaited ``final offensive.'' The Iranian hope is that, by achieving limited but significant military successes, Security Council members will pass a resolution more amenable to Iranian demands.
But whether Iran's tactics will serve this purpose - or actually harden Arab and Western positions against the Tehran regime - is not completely clear.
``We will launch a series of attacks that will be similar in magnitude to the ones of last winter,'' said an aide to Prime Minister Hossein Musavi. The Iranians are downplaying the importance and magnitude of their planned offensive in an apparent attempt to avoid the mistake they made last year. At that time, the regime had promised Iranians that the offensive would definitively end the bloody war, making Iran the victor. Instead, the fighting dragged on from December through April, with thousands of casualties.
As they have in the past, Western observers in the Gulf region disagree on Iran's chances of achieving a significant breakthrough this time around.
Diplomats in Tehran say they're impressed by the Iranian war volunteers' strength of purpose. These diplomats hold that Iraqi forces have their backs to the wall and consider that each of the three past winters was marked by significant Iranian advances.
Diplomats in Baghdad, on the other hand, say the Iraqis are more self-confident than in the past and have the feeling that the worst is over. These sources claim Iranian troops will only be able to lauch very limited thrusts.
According to Iranian officials contacted in Tehran this winter's attacks will be two-pronged:
In the mountainous northern front, regular Army soldiers and war volunteers will try to advance toward the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk. In this sector of the battlefield, the Iranians are already 15 miles inside Iraq after their successful drive last spring. They have occupied the garrison town of Mawat, but remain 60 miles from Kirkuk.
``Our aim is not to take Kirkuk but to capture a series of ridges overlooking the Kirkuk Valley,'' according to an Iranian diplomat contacted in Bonn. ``This would enable us to fire ground-to-ground missiles at Iraq's main oil installations,'' he adds. ``Simultaneously to this attack, Iraqi Kurdish dissidents will launch a series of hit-and-run raids deep behind Iraqi defense lines.''
In the extreme south of the front, Iranian Revolutionary Guards are likely to once again try to advance toward the Iraqi port of Basra. Western intelligence sources with access to satellite pictures confirm the Iranian military build up in this sector. Last January's round of fighting left Iranian outposts only some 10 miles from Basra. But the Iranian troops have not yet crossed the Shatt al Arab waterway. Without crossing this waterway, NATO analysts in Brussels say, any Iranian offensive would be of limited strategic significance.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.