Washington — Iraq, the emerging "winner" in the latest Middle East war, may soon be searching subtly for peace. Ironically, the danger is that "loser" Iran might go right on fighting.
The consensus Sept. 28, among Western and Arab experts contacted by the Monitor, is that the peril of full-scale explosion in the Gulf region is diminishing; that peace efforts will gather momentum within the next week to 10 days; but that Iraq may find it harder to stop a war with Iran than to start one.
By all logic, the robed mullahs, disheveled revolutionary guardsmen, and Western-educated Islamo-technocrats in Tehran should be all but begging for peace.
Iraq's largely Soviet-stocked military machine has axed away at what little remains of Iran's once-mighty oil economy. Infantrymen brandishing AK-47 automatic rifles, with their distinctive banana-shaped ammunition clips, have overrun Iranian border areas, then obligingly posed for photographs.
Iraqi war planes have battered Iranian towns, cities, and other outposts -- including Tehran airport, where Boeing 747 transport aircraft, slumbering for months like huge tired seagulls, must have made tempting targets.
The intermittent thunder of Iraqi artillery has pounded Iranian oil installations, including the enormous Abadan refinery near the northern shore of the Gulf.
Internationally, Iran is hermetically isolated. By Sept. 28, only Israel, on the theory that anyone fighting Iraq can't be all bad, had hinted it might be willing to help replenish Iran's depleted arsenal. "With friends like that. . . ," a mullah or two must be ruminating.
But logic, or its Western variants, has never seemed much help in deciphering Iran's revolution. In a conversation with this correspondent, a senior US Defense Department official kept returning to one concern. Can Iran be counted to on an act in a way that we, here, consider rational? Can Iran be counted on to make peace?
Iran's more glaring weaknesses -- a government that does not govern, an economy that does not do whatever economies are supposed to do, and a nationwide splitting at the seams -- could turn out to be strength in its conflict with Iraq.
Short of assassinating or toppling Ayatollah Khomeini, there appears not much Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein can do to Iran that Iran has not already done to itself. Saddam, as the Iraqi leader is generally known in the Arab world, cannot say the same of his own nation.
Like the Shah toppled next door, he runs a petro-dictatorship. Like the late Shah, he wields a ruthless secret service to keep the more troublesome of his subjects in line.
As in imperial Iran, these potential troublemakers include millions of Shiite Muslims more devoted to their ayatollahs than to their temporal rulers. Saddam is a Sunnite Muslim and, not withstanding a recent image overhaul, a merely nominal one at that.
And like Iran's one-time king of kings, the Iraqi leader seems determined to build the Middle East's first superpower. To this end, he has parlayed the region's second-richest oil stock into military supplies from both Moscow and the West, and into ambitious development programs at home.
Iran cannot defeat Saddam's army, but the remnants of the Shah's Air Force have managed occasional bombing successes. Iraqi oil installations, on-scene reports indicate, have been damaged. An Iranian air strike has interrupted the flow of Iraqi crude through a Syrian pipeline. A Second overland oil route, through Turkey, is said to have been damaged by saboteurs.Iraqi oil shipments through the Gulf have stopped.
The dislocation caused by the Islamic revolution already has taught Iran to live, however poorly, with sharply reduced oil revenues. Iraq, military victories notwithstanding, is only now having to cope with that prospect.
Oil earnings remain central to Saddam's political and economic strategies. "Iraq has more at stake than Iran in this conflict," one Arab diplomat remarked.
Diplomats expect Baghdad gradually to come around to the idea of peace, despite evidence of foot-dragging so far at the United Nations.
The envoys say Iranian "moderates," such as French-educated President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, presumably would reciprocate. The open question, with a familiar ring for anyone who has followed Iran's roller-coaster revolution, appears whether the same will hold true for Ayatollah Khomeini.