Syrian peace shuttling in Gulf prompts optimism in region. But observers warn lull in Iranian tanker raids may be only temporary

Despite a current lull in Iranian attacks against shipping in the Gulf, diplomatic analysts are questioning whether Iran is sincere in its offer to open a peace dialogue with the Gulf Arab states. Envoys from Syria and the United Arab Emirates have recently visited Tehran in an effort to persuade the Islamic Republic to stop threatening the Gulf states and accept a peaceful end to the seven-year war with Iraq.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, currently on a tour of the Gulf Arab states, expressed his support for mediation attempts and praised long-time rival Syria for its role. In comments to members of the press before leaving Kuwait for Qatar Tuesday, Mr. Mubarak said he would ``carry the Syrians on my shoulders and roam the streets,'' if they managed to engineer a breakthrough in peace efforts with the Iranians.

The flurry of diplomatic activity in Tehran has resulted in optimistic assessments suggesting that Iran may now be more willing to talk peace with its neighbors. Such assessments note that Iranian attacks against shipping have fallen off, with Iran's last attack in the Gulf carried out on Dec. 25. The reports have also suggested that Iran has agreed to postpone a planned major winter offensive against Iraq's second largest city, Basra, to enable talks to proceed.

Despite these encouraging signs, Gulf-based analysts warn that while Iranian officials say they are willing to talk with the Gulf states, there has been no indication that Tehran is prepared to end its threats against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia or shift its position on the war with Iraq.

``I don't think there is any clear evidence that the Iranians have called a halt to their [war] efforts in the Gulf,'' says a diplomat based in Kuwait.

The diplomat says it remains to be seen whether recent Syrian and other mediation will pay off with a change of policy in Iran. But he noted that he had yet to see hints that Iran would alter any of its key demands.

(Some analysts suggest that Syria's mediation efforts are driven in large part by a desire to reap the benefits of generous financial aid from the Gulf states. During the Arab Summit last November in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait agreed to provide lucrative financial aid payments to the hard-pressed Syrian economy. But the Gulf leaders made their payments to Syria contingent on Syrian efforts to work for Gulf peace.)

Meanwhile, UN Gulf peace efforts have bogged down over Iranian insistence that Iraq be declared the aggressor in the 7-year war. And concerns are growing that an upsurge in Iraqi attacks on Iranian shipping may re-ignite the ``tanker war'' and complicate ongoing diplomacy.

Recent attacks by Iraqi jet fighters against Iranian oil tankers are expected to prompt Iran to end an 18-day hiatus in Iranian attacks against Gulf shipping.

Late Monday, an Iraqi air-launched missile slammed into the 74,010-ton Cypriot-flagged tanker ``United Venture'' in the central Gulf near Iran's Lavan Island. The ship, carrying Iranian petroleum products, caught fire and two crew members were reported killed. Six others are missing. The attack followed an Iraqi raid Sunday against the 280,476-ton Iranian tanker ``Khark 3'' near Iran's Kharg Island oil terminal in the northern Gulf. There were also unconfirmed reports that two other tankers were attacked by the Iraqis during the day, and that the Iraqis also bombed Abu Musa island, which serves as a base for forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the southern Gulf.

Earlier reports said that the Gulf states had convinced Iraq to hold off on its Gulf attacks to give peace efforts with Iran a chance. The Iraqis had refrained from attacking Iranian ships or other targets for seven days while Syrian negotiators shuttled around the region. But on Jan. 8, Iraqi fighters bombed Iran's refinery at Tabriz and Iran responded the next day by shelling Basra and attacking a non-working offshore oil terminal in the northern Gulf used by the Iraqis as a military outpost.

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