Gradual Superpower Involvement
In early 1987, both superpowers indicated their interest in the
security of the region. Soviet deputy foreign minister Vladimir
Petrovsky made a Middle East tour expressing his country's concern
over the effects of the Iran-Iraq War. In May 1987, United States
assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy also toured the Gulf
emphasizing to friendly Arab states the United States commitment
in the region, a commitment which had become suspect as a result
of Washington's transfer of arms to the Iranians, officially as
an incentive for them to assist in freeing American hostages held
in Lebanon. In another diplomatic effort, both superpowers supported
the UN Security Council resolutions seeking an end to the war
(see Foreign Policy , ch. 4).
The war appeared to be entering a new phase in which the superpowers
were becoming more involved. For instance, the Soviet Union, which
had ended military supplies to both Iran and Iraq in 1980, resumed
large-scale arms shipments to Iraq in 1982 after Iran banned the
Tudeh and tried and executed most of its leaders. Subsequently,
despite its professed neutrality, the Soviet Union became the
major supplier of sophisticated arms to Iraq. In 1985 the United
States began clandestine direct and indirect negotiations with
Iranian officials that resulted in several arms shipments to Iran.
Iranian military gains inside Iraq after 1984 were a major reason
for increased superpower involvement in the war. In February 1986,
Iranian units captured the port of Al Faw, which had oil facilities
and was one of Iraq's major oil-exporting ports before the war.
By late 1986, rumors of a final Iranian offensive against Basra
proliferated. On January 8, Operation Karbala Five began, with
Iranian units pushing westward between Fish Lake and the Shatt
al Arab. They captured the town of Duayji and inflicted 20,000
casualties on Iraq, but at the cost of 65,000 Iranian casualties.
In this intensive operation, Baghdad also lost forty-five airplanes.
Attempting to capture Basra, Tehran launched several attacks,
some of them well-disguised diversion assaults such as Operation
Karbala Six and Operation Karbala Seven. Iran finally aborted
Operation Karbala Five on February 26.
In late May 1987, just when the war seemed to have reached a
complete stalemate on the southern front, reports from Iran indicated
that the conflict was intensifying on Iraq's northern front. This
assault, Operation Karbala Ten, was a joint effort by Iranian
units and Iraqi Kurdish rebels. They surrounded the garrison at
Mawat, endangering Iraq's oil fields near Kirkuk and the northern
oil pipeline to Turkey.
By late spring of 1987, the superpowers became more directly
involved because they feared that the fall of Basra might lead
to a pro-Iranian Islamic republic in largely Shia-populated southern
Iraq. They were also concerned about the intensified tanker war.
During the first four months of 1987, Iran attacked twenty ships
and Iraq assaulted fifteen. Kuwaiti ships were favorite targets
because Iran strongly objected to Kuwait's close relationship
with the Baghdad regime. Kuwait turned to the superpowers, partly
to protect oil exports but largely to seek an end to the war through
superpower intervention. Moscow leased three tankers to Kuwait,
and by June the United States had reflagged half of Kuwait's fleet
of twenty-two tankers. Finally, direct attacks on the superpowers'
ships drew them into the conflict. On May 6, for the first time,
a Soviet freighter was attacked in the southern Gulf region, hit
by rockets from Iranian gunboats. Ten days later, a Soviet tanker
was damaged by a mine allegedly placed by Iranians near the Kuwait
coast. More shocking to the United States was the May 17 accidental
Iraqi air attack on the U.S.S Stark in which thirty-seven
sailors died. The attack highlighted the danger to international
shipping in the Gulf.
Data as of December 1987