Until recently, the three-year-old Gulf war had passed from international awareness despite nearly a half million casualties, mostly in Iran. This was not surprising. For some time the war had ceased to threaten the whole region and its oil supply lines. It had become essentially a border war of attrition between Iran and Iraq.
Two recent developments have brought the Gulf war closer to the forefront of international issues.
First was the French decision to sell Iraq the Super Etendard aircraft capable of carrying the Exocet missile that proved so deadly in the Falklands war. France has also been training Iraqi pilots to fly the Etendard. It justifies these steps by portraying the aircraft as a deterrent force that will force Iran to negotiate. So far, however, Iran has responded by threatening to interrupt oil exports from the Gulf if Iraq attacks Iran's oil terminal on Kharg Island or prevents tankers from carrying Iranian oil.
Thus, once again, there is the specter of the Iran-Iraq war's turning back into a regional conflict with ominous implications for the safety of oil supply lines.
The second development has been Iraq's effort to solicit US help in bringing the war to an end. Its motives are clear. Iraq is now facing grave economic and financial problems because of its inability to export oil and the sharp reduction of financial support from Gulf Arab states. Meanwhile, Iran has somewhat moderated its domestic politics and has shifted its foreign policy westward - as symbolized by worsening relations with the Soviet Union and improved relations with Britain and other European countries. Iran has also tried to reestablish its financial and commercial standing in international markets.
Thus Iraq fears that the West will favor Iran for three reasons: Iran's moderation and overtures to the West; its size, population, and market potential; and its prime strategic location as the only state barring Soviet entry into the Gulf.
Yet despite Iraq's new overtures, prospects for peace are not encouraging. There is no indication that the US or the West in general could succeed where Islamic and nonaligned countries have failed. Nevertheless, renewed international attention to the continuing broader risks in the war, coupled with Iran's new sense of vulnerability, might improve these prospects.
To be truly successful, however, any peace effort must try not only to end hostilities between Iran and Iraq, but also to help create conditions needed for long-term stability in the Gulf. It should also avoid actions that could jeopardize recent Western gains in Iran and prejudice the future of Iran's relations with the West. Thus the West should avoid overwhelming pressure on Iran that would only strengthen radical forces - of both left and right - and would force Iran to turn to the Soviet Union. Moscow would welcome such a chance to recoup its losses, a possibility that is well understood in Western Europe. Even in France there is criticism of the government's putting all its eggs in the Iraqi basket, as reflected in Le Monde's expression of deep reservations.
Any peace effort must also bear in mind the root causes of the war, be based on fundamental and enduring principles of international law, and account for the vital interests of all the regional states.
There needs, for example, to be recognition that the war started with Iraqi aggression triggered by two factors: Iran's military weakness and revolutionary chaos, coupled with its militant rhetoric and propaganda against the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein; and Iraq's territorial ambitions toward Khusistan and its broader ambitions in the Gulf and the Arab world.
Any realistic peace effort must take account of this record and be based upon five key principles:
* All nations in the region, including Iran, must have the right to territorial integrity. This is especially important for the future of Iran's relations with the West. It will reassure Iran that the West does not support the validity of Arab irredentist claims to Khusistan. It will reassure Iraq against Iranian ambitions. And it will reassure the smaller Gulf countries against both of their northern neighbors.
* Internationally recognized borders cannot be altered by the use of force. In addition to the above, this would warn the Soviet Union against using force in Iran.
* No state may interfere in the internal affairs of other states, directly or indirectly.
* The Shatt al Arab waterway should be governed by international law concerning border rivers, or by any bilateral agreement reached by the riparian states. A good basis for a settlement would be the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq.
* Freedom on the high seas and safety on international maritime routes should be respected.
In addition to advancing these five principles, Western states need to show more caution in supplying weapons to regional states. They should try to develop a regional balance of military power that neither invites aggression because of weakness nor whets appetites because of superiority. They should also avoid economic overexposure in any of the Gulf countries which could pose problems and dilemmas like those faced by France today.
Of course, there is no guarantee that reiterating these principles and adopting this Western caution would be a sufficient basis for ending the Iran-Iraq war. What is certain is that, without these steps, the long-term prospects for peace in the Gulf will be even less promising than they are now.