The long-range missile warfare of the past week between Iran and Iraq will not tip the balance of power toward either side in the seven-year conflict, diplomats and analysts here say. But the flare-up in the ``war of the cities,'' might trigger political repercussions.
The indiscriminate missile attacks on both sides' capital cities, they note, underscore the need for strong international efforts to win a cease-fire in the Gulf war. And they point to the grim costs of further delay.
The size and scope of Iraq's response to the Iran's missile attack on Baghdad earlier this week - including hitting Qom, the center of religious teaching in Iran - makes it more difficult for the Soviet Union to agree to support a UN Security Council resolution on an arms embargo against Iran, analysts say.
Iran has accused the Soviet Union of supplying Iraq with the long-range missiles that have been raining down on Tehran and Qom. Iranian officials lodged a protest with the Soviet ambassador in Tehran earlier this week, introducing a new element of tension in Soviet-Iranian relations. The Soviet Union is the primary source of arms for Iraq, but also supplies arms to Iran and has been seeking warmer ties with the Islamic Republic in recent months.
Nonetheless, the USSR is reported to be close to supporting a US-backed Security Council resolution that would seek to halt all arms shipments to Iran because of its reluctance to accept UN ceasefire calls.
``Striking at Qom with missiles - this is a new element of escalation,'' says an experienced diplomat in the Gulf. ``Because of this I don't think the UN Security Council can operate as planned. The Soviet Union will pull back from supporting an embargo,'' he predicted.
If so, it would mark a serious miscalculation by the Iraqis, whose massive missile blitz was intended in large part to emphasize to the international community that the Iran-Iraq war was still in need of an effective solution.
The Iraqis are said to have used their missiles in an attempt to swing the international spotlight back to the Gulf war, after several months during which the world attention was turned to the uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories.
The missile attacks are also seen as attempts by both Iran and Iraq to demoralize the other's populations while reassuring their own citizens of the government's ability to strike hard blows at the enemy. The escalation seems only to have fueled even more hatred and vows of vengeance.
The possibility of even more deadly escalations in the future was underscored last weekend when Dutch and US authorities confiscated a cargo of chemical weapons in the process of being diverted illegally from the US through Europe to Iran.
The episode suggests the value of international cooperation in working to prevent the movement of escalatory weapons to the Gulf. But it also demonstrates that innovative arms acquisition networks are still actively working in the US and Europe to deliver war materiel to Iran.
In the meantime, Iraq is demonstrating its own ability to innovate on the warfront. This week marked the first time Iraq has used long-range missiles to strike directly at the Iranian capital and at Qom, where many Iranian religious leaders live.
Iraq is said to have fired 25 missiles during the past four days, including three at Qom. Iran is reported to have fired 10 missiles at Baghdad.
The extent of casualties is still uncertain, with Iran saying that more than 30 persons have been killed by Iraqi missiles, and Iraq saying only that ``many civilians'' have been killed or wounded by Iranian missiles.
Both Iran and Iraq are roughly estimated to have more than 40 missiles each. But it is not known how many of the missiles in Iraqi stocks are capable of flying the more than 300 miles from Iraqi territory to Tehran.
The Iraqi missiles remain a mystery to military analysts. It has been suggested that Iraq is using ``strap-on boosters'' or is reducing the weight of the warhead to double the range of Iraq's Soviet-supplied Scud-B missiles. There have also been suggestions that Iraq may be using large air-launched missiles to hit Tehran, flying the missiles into Iranian territory on old Soviet-built Badger bombers before firing them into the Iranian capital.
The Iraqis maintain that the long-range missiles have been designed and built by Iraqi technicians, but western military experts are skeptical.
In a vindictive twist, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has named the long-range Iraqi missile, ``Al-Hussein,'' after the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who is one of the most revered Shiite leaders in Islamic history.
The selection of that name, as well as the Iraqi targeting of the Shiite religious center of Qom, points up the extreme contempt the secular Iraqi Baathist regime has for the religious Shiite hierarchy that governs Iran. And it suggests the Iraqis are fighting a lot more than just a military campaign against Iranian forces.
Thirteen centuries ago, on a desert battlefield in what is now modern-day Iraq, Hussein and a small group of his supporters were massacred by overwhelming forces in a battle over who would lead the Islamic nation. Though heavily outnumbered and facing certain death, Hussein stood by his principles and his faith in God. He is referred to by the Shiites as ``the lord among martyrs.''
The memory of Imam Hussein is an inspiration and an enduring example of courage to devout Shiites.
In contrast many Shiites view the Iraqi president as a modern-day equivalent of the Umayyid caliphs of the seventh century who severely persecuted the Shiites and sent the army to massacre Hussein.