Analysis: which Gulf nation will crack first?

In the war of attrition that now appears to face Iraq and Iran, a key question is: Will Iraq or Iran crack first? The present stalemate results frm Iraq's failure to capture quickly the cities of Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, and Dezful. This was clearly the Iraqis' aim.

It would have given them absolute control of the pipeline from Iran's Gulf oil fields up to Tehran. That, in turn, would have enabled the Iraqis to hold the Iranian capital hostage.

Iran -- contrary to what many outsiders (including presumably Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein himself) had expected -- has managed to stall the Iraqi attack.

Now, despite the frequent pattern whereby stalemate in armed conflict is a prelude to a negotiated compromise, an early peace is unlikely. Iran refuses t parley until Iraqi troops are off its territory. Iraq refuses to parley or consider withdrawal until Iran recognizes Arab (i.e. Iraqi) primacy at least in the disputed Shatt al Arab estuary and perhaps even over the Gulf as a whole.

To be seen to compromise at this stage would be politically dangerous for the leadership in either country. It would also be contrary to the pattern of conduct established for the Iranian revolution from the outset by Ayatollah Khomeini.

NBoth leaderships preside over countries that are not homogeneous. Both would therefore seem from the outside to be liable to cracking or fragmentation under certain pressures.

Iraq, a state fashioned mainly under British auspices after World War I, often has been described as a land of minorities. Its main internal divisions are three-way: Sunni Arabs who, despite their overall minority status, have always monopolized political power; Shia Arabs, the biggest of the three communities, who have longstanding religious links with predominantly Shia Iran; and Sunni Kurds, who straddle the Iraqi-IRanian border and are a chronic potential source of disaffection in both countries.

Revolutionary Iran is imperial Persia under another name. The government, under the Ayatollah as under the Shahs, is Persian. Around the Persian heartland live, often uncomfortably, a number of subject peples: the Shia Azerbaijanis, and the Sunni Kurds, Lurs, Arabs, Baluchis, and Turkmens.

This more diverse patchwork within Iran suggests t an outsider that under pressure Iran would more readily disintegrate than Iraq. Yet the rallying within hitherto debilitated Iran against the Iraqi attacks of the past tw weeks points in the opposite direction.

Probably the only community within Iran for whom Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has appeal is that of the Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan province. And even there, Arabs dominate only in the countryside: Persians control the city strongholds -- which explains why Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, and Dezful have held out against the Iraqi Army.

The preoccupation of Shia Persians with martyrdom also buttresses Iranian resistance. So does the Persian perception of the secular, Sunni Muslim Saddam Hussein as being corrupting and unclean.

But President Hussein, too, is buttressed by a legacy of the past. Baghdad was seat of the abbasid caliphs, great center of Arab civilization at the time of Europe's Dark Ages, and capital of Haroun al-Rashid and the Thousand and One Nights.

President Hussein himself, moreover, comes from Takrit, birthplace of saladin. And Saladin, although a Kurd, is a hero from the era of the Crusades venerated by Arab and Kurd alike.

The fragmentation of either Iraq or IRan would further undermine stability in the Gulf. An argument can be made that, for the United States, the disintegration of Iran would be even more threatening than that of Iraq. Yet Iran's continued holding of the 52 American hostages precludes the US from tilting toward Iran to fend off any eventual breakup of the country.

Ayatollah khomeini and his more zealous followers seem not to understand that freeing the hostages now might well nudge American public opinion into a more understanding attitude toward an Iran under Iraqi attack. Ironically Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein does seem to understand this -- and that it is in Iraq's interest to prevent release of the hostages. His radio's false announcement at the outset of the war that the hostages had been freed by Iran was presumably intended to make it impossible for Iran to do just that.

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