Behind Iran-Iraq rift: a 1975 pact

Iraq's immediate aim in its escalated dispute with Iran is to take back concessions made to Iran in 1975. That much is clear from the scene of latest border clashes between the two countries: their common land frontier over a long stretch southward from where the Tehran-Baghdad road crosses it; and the Shatt Al-Arab estuary, much farther to the south, which provides shipping access to Iraq's only major port and Iran's major oil refinery at Abadan.

These areas were at the center of the 1975 agreement.

Beyond this immediate aim, the much bigger long- term Iraqi purpose is threefold:

1. To make Baghdad the dominant power center in the Arab Middle East.

2. As part of this broad purpose, to replace the non-Arab Iran as the dominant power in the Gulf.

3. To undercut any countereffort by revolutionary Shia Islam in Iran to subvert Iraq through the latter's big Shia Muslim community.

Back in 1975, when Iraq made the concessions to Iran that it now wants to take back, Iraq was on the defensive and Iran was on the offensive. Iraq was bogged down in a no-win war with its Kurdish minority and Iran (in the person of the Shah) was well on the way to filling the vacuum in the Gulf following the British withdrawal from east of Suez.

Today, things are reversed. Iraq is on the offensive, Iran on the defensive -- because revolutionary turmoil within Iran has shattered authority at the center and left the armed forces in disarray.

When it comes to the Kurds, the shoe is also on the other foot. Today, Iranian Kurds are as open to subversion from Iraq as, in the early 1970s, Iraqi Kurds were from Iran. In 1975, a relatively weaker Iraq was willing to pay Iran a price to get it to withdraw support from the Kurdish insurrection within Iraq. That price was: first to concede Iranian sovereignty over half of the Shatt Al-Arab estuary and waterway, over which Iraq had claimed entire control; and second, to delineate on the basis of the 1913 Protocol of Constantinople approximately 670 positions, some in contention, on the Iraqi-Iranian border.

This is the agreement that Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein has abrogated this month and is now trying to undo on the ground.

This is why he is telling foreign merchantmen approaching Iranian ports on Shatt Al-arab to fly the Iraqi flag in acknowledgment of restored Iraqi sovereignty over the width of the waterway -- and why gunboats of the two countries have begun to shoot at each other.

This, too, is why in the north, in positions subject to the 1975 agreement, Mr. Saddam claims to have recaptured from the Iranians territory wrongfully held by them.

But it is the Shatt Al-Arab that is the more sensitive area. An Iraq trying to assert its primacy in the Gulf is inhibited if access by water to its only major GulF outlet at Basra is at the mercy of a sovereignty shared with neighboring and endemically hostile Iran.

Yet Iran, having acquired by the 1975 agreement a right to share that sovereignty, will not willingly relinquish it and return to Iraqi control sea access to the important Iranian ports of Khorramshahr and Abadan -- the latter with its huge oil-refinery complex.

For Iran, there is the added threat from Arab Iraq to the entire Iranian province of Khuzestan. The latter (called Arabistan by Arabs) is the home not only of Iran's oil industry but also of its considerable Arab minority. The latter is naturally susceptible to subversion from a neighboring Arab state.

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