Iraq's recent acquisition of five French Super Etendard jets that can be mounted with Exocet missiles gives Saddam Hussein's government a new capability to cripple Iranian oil facilities and break the stalemated war with Iran, according to government sources and foreign policy analysts here.
Iraqi pilots have been training at a French air base near Brest for at least the past month, but military experts here were unsure when the Super Etendards will be operational in Iraq. A Pentagon spokesman said last week, however, that it may be only a "matter of a few weeks" before the pilots are trained and the planes delivered.
The Super Etendards, used with devastating success by Argentina to launch Exocet missiles against British warships in the Falklands war, have emerged as perhaps the most effective airborne missile launching system. Iraq reportedly has launched the Exocet from helicopters and fighter aircraft with little success.
While it is far from clear how Saddam Hussein will use the new jets, most experts agree that attacking Iranian oil targets poses a number of problems, including provoking Iran to retaliate against Iraq's prime supporter in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia. As one Middle East observer pointed out, "If the Iranians get desperate, they could do some serious damage on the Saudi coast."
Whether Iraq could succeed in damaging the oil facilities or tankers is a matter of conjecture. One Pentagon spokesman said, "There's been so much massive military ineptitude in this war that I would not make the same assumptions about Exocets in Iraqi hands as I would in French or Argentine hands."
Another western analyst said that even if the attacks are successful, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini "would just demand more sacrifices from his people" rather than negotiate with Saddam Hussein.
Iraq was widely believed at the war's outset, almost three years ago, to be capable of defeating Iran, but Khomeini's Moslem fundamentalist forces have stopped the Iraqi invasion and largely succeeded in winning back the territory temporarily taken by Saddam Hussein's army. Until now Iraq has been incapable of inflicting serious damage on Iran's oil targets. Khomeini, for his part, has set prohibitive negotiating terms for ending the war. But the credible threat of striking Iranian oil targets, either the Khark Island oil facility, offshore oil rigs or oil tankers, could induce the Iranian leader to consider seriously negotiating an end to the conflict, some Middle East observers believe.
Even if it does not signal a break in the military and diplomatic logjam between Iraq and Iran, the loan of five Super Etendards, finalized in early June and revealed three weeks later by the French newspaper Le Monde, marks a significant increase in France's stake in the war and coincides with a period of heightened western involvement in the conflict.
However, while western countries such as the United States continue to avoid taking an overtly partisan dive into the conflict, France is now seen to be completely mired in it. The stakes are high for Francois Mitterrand's Socialist government, which already has lost a degree of political credibility through its large arms sales to Iraq and stands to lose a great deal more in terms of the multibillion-dollar Iraqi debt to French military and commercial manufacturers.
The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency lists France as the second largest arms supplier to Iraq between 1976 and 1980, behind the Soviet Union. An Iraqi official said that since the war began France has overtaken the Soviet Union.
According to figures in Flight International, a military trade publication, and a source at the State Department, military sales from France to Iraq were $2 billion in 1981, the first full year after the war began, $1.7 billion in 1982, and roughly the same amount is estimated for this year.
While an Iraqi spokesman at the United Nations played down the level of his country's indebtedness to France, reliable sources, including the respected Middle East Economic Digest, say France is owed as much as $7 billion by Iraq, and nearly $1.7 billion in outstanding payments is owed this year.
To help offset the current year debt, Iraqi representatives are negotiating an $800 million to $1 billion loan from the largely nationalized French banking sector, according to news reports from London. The reports also say that France began a year-long agreement with Iraq last month providing the French government with 80,000 barrels of oil a day to cover approximately $730 million that Iraq owes France.
French and Iraqi officials refused to confirm or deny the reports, but Salah Mukhtar, press counselor at the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations, acknowledged that Iraq has increased its oil transfers to France.
According to several sources, the Iraqi economy has ground to a halt. One aide on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, largely echoing the experts' consensus, said flatly, "All economic development in Iraq has come to a standstill. Payment of loans and debts has been stopped." Iraq has seen a steady decline in its oil income, with production plummeting from a prewar average of 3.5 million barrels a day to its current level of 700,000 barrels a day. The country's foreign currency reserves, nearly $33 billion before the war, have fallen to near zero, western observers say.
Generous loans from Saudi Arabia and other conservative Persian Gulf states enable the government in Baghdad to continue its estimated $1 billion-per-month war effort. Mukhtar said that "semiofficial" estimates of gulf state loans to Iraq were $20 billion since the war began, but government and congressional officials say the level is closer to $30 billion, if not higher. While Iraq can rely on exchanging oil for goods with France, its trade with other nations--such as the United States--is believed to be conducted on a nonbarter basis with Saudi money.
The U.S. sale late last year of 60 Hughes helicopters to Saddam Hussein's government was concluded after Iraq paid "promptly and with cash" for the aircraft, according to a Hughes Helicopter spokesman. However, congressional critics view such deals as violating this country's neutral stance in the conflict, since the aircraft can be used for a number of military purposes, including training pilots for combat duty.
In fact, although diplomatic relations between Iraq and the United States were severed in 1967, experts say the Reagan administration--despite its public neutrality--has made a discernible "tilt" toward Iraq. State Department figures attest to increased commerce between the two countries, with trade to Iraq reaching $845 million in 1982, nearly 20 percent more than when the war began in 1980.
A State Department official, while admitting that relations with Saddam Hussein's government have "warmed up," denied that there is any violation of neutrality. He said the sale of commercial goods that may be used to aid the country's armed forces is "one of those gray areas" that does not clearly breach the official neutrality.