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Lessons of the Iraq-Iran war

Though the current war between Iran and Iraq rolls along seemingly interminably, still there are "lessons" of the war which can be gleaned even at this stage. For in many respects this is a forerunner of a new type of war in the developing world, one which will both endanger and challenge Western security leaders throughout this decade and this century.

* First, the war showed up some inadequacies of Western intelligence. When the war began, many US intelligence analysts predicted a quick Iraqi victory. The Iranian military was said to have been demoralized by political turmoil at home and incapacitated by the execution or exiling of the Shah's officer corps. While the Iraqis have made gains on the ground, the Iranian Air Force has performed better than expected, and the Iranian ground forces slightly better than expected.

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The US lacked adequate intelligence on either the logistical abilities of the two armies or their troop morale. More important, the US intelligence community needs higher-quality information on the cultural, political, and economic affairs of the Persian Gulf states. This can be obtained directly or indirectly through far wider intelligence-sharing among our allies. The French and British have deep historical ties in the area which are not fully tapped by Washington, and the Israelis have unshared assets there as well.

* Second, the war furnishes the lesson that developing countries are not reluctant to lunge for the jugular of their enemy.Both Iran and Iraq have been willing and able to attack the other's strategic targets, primarily oil and nuclear facilities. In fact, Iraq attacked because of its own economic vulnerability, as well as Iran's provocations and political vulnerability. Iraq is the sole OPEC member whose oil exports cannot flow except through another country in the north (Syria, Lebanon, Turkey) or so close to its neighbor in the south (Iran) as to lack security. Hence did Iraq lunge and attempt to destroy Iran's oil sources, refineries, and transportation routes.

Needless to point out now, this strategy did not entirely succeed. Iraq did not live up to expectations. Its inability to achieve a knockout win yet, a good half year after it launched the attack, lays to rest its claims to regional hegemony, a la the Shah's Iran. It also lays to rest President Hussein's claim to uncontested Arab leadership a la Egypt's Nasser.

For the world beyond, this second lesson hits home. If developing nations show no reluctance to go after each other's vital minerals, this places the developed world -- which heavily depends upon those minerals -- in its own vulnerable position. Iran's and Iraq's oil installations will require from six to 18 months to repair, once the fighting stops. This inevitably adds pressure on spot oil prices. Thus it is that the West's economic stability hangs on slender threads. For some 60 percent of Gulf exports pass through only three parts, with eight critical pump sites controlling the flow of oil.

* Third, the war shows the chaotic nature of third-world conflicts. There had been a propensity to believe that such conflicts would resemble the 1973 Yom Kippur war with each side using advanced weapons in a conventional manner to defeat the other's army on the battlefield in a fairly organized manner. In this case, however, neither Iran nor Iraq used its modern equipment, supplied by the US and USSR respectively, with any imagination or real proficiency. Their armies had scant coordination, and some units in the field were left to fight largely on their own. Unlike what happened in the 1973 war, huge amounts of sophisticated material were not expended quickly, nor were there large numbers of casualties on either side. The whole Iran-Iraq engagement started off in a most disorganized fashion and has bogged down ever since.

* Fourth is the war's lesson that major conflicts can erupt without superpower involvement. In contrast with the 1973 Middle East war and the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971, neither Washington nor Moscow possessed sufficient influence to control the outbreak and the course of the fighting between Iran and Iraq. Given the careful stockpiling and preparations by Iraq before the battle began, it was not the least dependent on Soviet military supplies. And there have apparently been no large-scale Soviet resupply efforts, despite the facts that Iraq is largely Soviet-equipped, the Soviets are Iraq's major source of imports, and Iraq and the Soviet Union are bound by a 1972 friendship treaty.

Not that the consequences of the Iran-Iraq war have been neutral or equal for the two superpowers. The war has helped the Soviet Union, though to what extent cannot yet be accurately gauged. For one thing, the Soviets were able to conclude a long-sought friendship treaty with Syria. Though Moscow wished the treaty to gain more influence in the region, Damascus resisted, as it wanted to appear less reliant on the Soviets than was its ideological foe, Iraq.For a second thing, the war may yet hand the Soviets the role of peace-maker, which they played in the Indian subcontinent in 1965. And for a third thing, resulting pressures for oil price hikes hurt the US and all Western economies while they help the Soviet Union, which is an oil exporter.

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* Lastly, the war brought home the tremendous loss to Western security of a strong, fairly unified, pro-Western Iran. The downfall of the Shah even now can be seen as one of the decade's most stunning events. For under the Shah, Iran offered security around the Gulf, provided oil for the US Mediterranean fleet and Indian Ocean deployments, refused to participate in the 1967 and 1973 oil embargoes, kept Iraq from playing a significant role in the Yom Kippur war by moving troops to its border with Iraq, and also in 1973 was the only country in the area to prohibit Soviet overflights. The absence of such assistance from any state in the critical and vulnerable Gulf area will be felt by the Western world for many years to come.

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