The Scud-B missile that crashed into the Kuwaiti desert early Wednesday morning was an attempt by Iran to retaliate against both the United States and Kuwait in a single shot, according to diplomatic and other analysts. The attack came as tension between Iran and Kuwait was already high, following allegations that Iranian officials had assisted the hijackers who held 31 persons hostage for 16 days aboard a Kuwaiti jumbo jet in their unsuccessful bid to free 17 Shiite extremists held in Kuwaiti jails.
Kuwaiti-Iranian relations were also strained over Iran's allegation that Kuwait had let Iraqi troops use Kuwait's Bubiyan Island as a launching point for Iraq's successful counterattack this week against Iranian forces on the strategic Faw Peninsula. Kuwait denies offering Iraq access to any of its territory.
The missile attack was denounced by Kuwaiti officials, who labeled it a ``blatant violation of international laws and conventions.'' The Ministry of Defense issued a statement reserving the right to respond to the attack. But analysts say there is little the Kuwaitis or their Gulf supporters can do to Iran other than issue diplomatic protests.
The missile landed some 50 miles south of Kuwait City near oil fields operated by the US firm, the Getty Oil Company. No damage or injuries were reported.
Some Gulf analysts suggest that in the aftermath of the Iraqi counterattack, Iran may be hard-pressed to continue to carry out attacks using its stocks of Chinese-built Silkworm missiles that had been located at Faw. They say that by redeploying to the east bank of the Shatt al Arab waterway, the Iranians may no longer be able to strike key Kuwaiti targets. They point out also that Iraqi artillery will be in a position to harass Iranian missile units.
In addition, Kuwait has significantly beefed up its defenses against Silkworm missiles, in part by deploying missile decoys near sensitive facilities.
Other analysts say it may be too soon for Kuwait to start breathing easier. They stress that the Scud-B attack demonstrates that even if Silkworm attacks are no longer effective, other types of Iranian missiles can still hit Kuwait.
In addition to being a warning to Kuwait, the missile attack is seen by Gulf analysts and diplomats as Iranian retaliation for the demolition earlier this week of the two Iranian offshore oil platforms in the southern Gulf, Sassan and Sirri, by the United States Navy.
Analysts say that perhaps that is why Iran aimed the Scud-B missile at the US-operated Getty oil fields on the southwest border of the country, rather than easier, more vulnerable targets such as the refinery and industrial complex at Al Ahmadi on the coast farther to the north.
``The Iranians would feel that they couldn't let this [the US attacks on Iran's oil platforms] go without retaliation,'' says a Gulf-based Western diplomat.
The launching of a missile aimed at Kuwaiti oil facilities in the wake of the US attacks is similar to Iran's response last October after the US launched its first attack against an Iranian oil platform in the offshore Rostam oil field.
Three days later, Iran fired a Silkworm antiship missile from Faw Peninsula. The missile, one of seven fired at Kuwait last year, struck Kuwait's key offshore oil loading platform, knocking it out of business for a month.
Despite the timing of the missile attack, the US declined further retaliation, stressing that no US target had been damaged. Diplomats at the time expressed concern that the US was setting a dangerous precedent in which Kuwait might be singled out in the future as a convenient and risk-free scapegoat for retaliatory attacks in the wake of US-Iranian military confrontations.
``The Iranians have got to do something to have the last word,'' explains a diplomat. He says firing a missile at Kuwait is ``an obvious and relatively easy option for them.''
And he adds, ``Most of the other options [open to Iran for retaliation] are fraught with danger and risk.''
One of those options - a direct confrontation with the US Navy - resulted last Monday in the sinking or damaging of six Iranian vessels.
Following the one-sided confrontation, Iran seems to be settling back into its old tactics of avoiding the US Navy and concentrating instead on harassing Iraq's Gulf Arab allies and hitting unprotected merchant shipping in the Gulf.