Iran responds to threat of Iraqi Exocets with a warning to all Gulf oil states
''The Iraqi-Zionist regime knows that if it causes any trouble to Iranian oil exports, all the countries in the area will be prevented from exporting their oil.''
This threat came Sunday evening in a Radio Tehran interview with the Iranian minister of foreign affairs, Ali Akbar Vellayati.
Clearly it means that Iran would respond to a successful strike at its own oil export facilities by either a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, which commands the access to the oil-rich Gulf, or a bombing of the oil facilities of the Arab states on the south of the Gulf.
Mr. Vellayati is generally seen in Tehran as one of the most moderate leaders of the Islamic regime. He is known for his rather cautious and restrained statements. His warning should thus be taken seriously.
Mr. Vellayati's interview is the first official Iranian answer to the loan by France to Iraq of five Super Etendard aircraft. Super Etendards with Exocet missiles could destroy Iranian oil facilities on Kharg Island. Exocet missiles sank two British vessels during the Falklands war and already have set afire three Iranian oil wells in the Gulf, causing large-scale pollution. The Iranians , who keep the bulk of their Air Force to protect their terminals on Kharg Island, recently confessed there is little they could do against the sophisticated Super Etendards.
The loan of the Super Etendards to Iraq was decided by French Minister of Defense Charles Hernu after Iraqi Prime Minister Tareq Aziz visited Paris in May. Iraqi pilots are to be trained in France.
In recent interviews, Iraqi officials announced they would soon be able to fire Exocet missiles at Iranian oil facilities.
The jets will remain the property of the French aeronaval forces, and observers say the contract might include clauses limiting their use. The French might have convinced the Iraqis to strike at Kharg Island only in case of an all-out, successful Iranian ground offensive.
Meanwhile, The Iranians are infuriated at the prospect of the arrival on the battlefield of the Super Etendards. The Iranian Navy, which includes destroyers, cruisers, and gunboats, is by far the most important naval force in the Gulf. It is said to have suffered very little from the war and is based at Bandar Abbas, a few miles west of the mouth of the Gulf.
Observers believe Iran could not mount a complete blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, but it could easily attack one or two oil tankers. That would cause a panic and deter other vessels from entering the shipping lane.
Iran could also in the last resort launch air strikes against the oil terminals of the Arab countries bordering the Gulf. One of their targets could be the Saudi oil facilities at Ras Tanura.
But this seems unlikely. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have substantially boosted their air defense in recent months. The Iranians are also well aware that a strike at their neighbor's oil installations would trigger an international conflict which they are said to be eager to avoid.
Mr. Vellayati's warning comes just as the Iranians are alternating lenient declarations with menacing ones to induce the UAE to withdraw its support for Baghdad.
''You have nothing to fear from the Islamic revolution,'' said Mr. Vellayati recently. But he added a few days later, ''You should refrain from attempting to aid (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein. Otherwise we'll treat you the same way we treat him.''
Observers also see a link between Mr. Vellayati's statement and the new offensive launched by Iranian troops within Iraq. Iranian soldiers crossed the border post on the road linking the Iranian town of Piranshahr to the Iraqi town of Rawandiz.
This offensive in the mountainous Kurdish area seems to have been at least partly successful. Iranians say they are 10 miles inside Iraq and they claim they have overrun the Iraqi garrison of Haj Omran.
As usual, Iraqi communiques give the number of Iranian casualties, but they refrain from mentioning the exact location of the fighting. This might be read as an indication that they are on the defensive.