WASHINGTON -- The sudden shift of some of Iraq's best military aircraft to a supposedly safe haven on neutral ground in neighboring Iran may pose a new threat in the Mideast war only if the move resulted from some kind of secret deal of cooperation, military and foreign policy experts said yesterday.
For now, those analysts suggested, the most plausible explanation for the transfer of about 90 Iraqi planes across the border is that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein simply was trying to save them from allied bombing strikes.
Stressing that they were speculating both on the background of the action itself and on its possible meaning, the analysts said they saw no significant new military threat to allied forces at this point.
"Unless this is part of something much larger, this will not be much of a problem for the U.S. to handle," said Eric Greenwald, a military affairs analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "If there is more to it -- if Iran is planning to join the war -- then there is a problem."
But he and others said they doubted that a widening of the war would follow from the movement of the planes, even if the shift were the result of some formal understanding between Iran and Iraq to transfer the planes across the border.
"Iran has no interest in this war" other than staying out it, said Joseph S. Lepgold, an associate professor at Georgetown University. "It's too weak, and it is not interested in getting into a quarrel between two of its biggest enemies: Iraq and the United States."
Moreover, Mr. Lepgold said, Iran's government "wants to return to the community of nations, to find a way to cooperate in the region, and thus can't tilt too far toward Iraq." At the same time, he added, the Iranian government is facing internal power struggles that suggest a need to "show its anti-American credentials." Accepting the Iraqi planes met that need, he said.
Loren B. Thompson, deputy director of strategic studies at Georgetown University, said Iran could only benefit regionally from a weakened Iraq. He also said that "pent-up enmity" as a result of the eight-year Iraq-Iran war could not be overcome overnight and that Iran in any event could see from U.S. bombing raids that "there is nothing to be gained by risking that kind of damage." Allowing Iran to become a jumping-off spot for Iraqi warplanes would raise that risk immediately, he said.
Mr. Thompson described the movement of the planes as "an act of desperation" by Iraq, because it represented a long-shot hope that it might someday get the aircraft back.
"There is a distinct possibility Saddam Hussein will never see these aircraft again," he said. But, he added, that is a risk Iraq took as the only alternative to losing the planes for sure as U.S. bombing targets.
Several experts speculated that the movement of the Iraqi planes was not the result of a series of defections by Iraqi pilots, seeking to get out of harm's way.
"Mass defection is implausible," Mr. Thompson said, since the flights to Iran occurred suddenly and in large numbers. But other analysts suggested that it was too early to rule out that theory.
Although official allied military and foreign policy spokesmen were stressing that the United States expected the planes now in Iran to stay there for the duration of the war, as Iran has said they would, some of the experts outside of government seemed to have doubts about that.
Mr. Greenwald, for example, cautioned that allied forces "have to make sure not to discount these planes."