Why Japan is taking the lead on cooling the Iran-Iraq war
Brinkmanship now going on between Iran and Iraq has raised the anxiety level in Washington, Tokyo, Europe, and the major stock exchanges. It has also raised some misleading headlines.Skip to next paragraph
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And it has tended to obscure the possibility that the time may be ripe for a Japanese-Western effort to bring about at least a partial cease-fire in a war that is in many respects the biggest since World War II.
The basic elements in the Iran-Iraq strategic equation today are these:
* If Iran were to carry through on its threat to block all oil shipping from the Gulf, Iran itself would be the biggest loser. Japan would be the second biggest. Iraq would not be affected. Europe would be less affected than the Far East.
* Iraq, by threatening to attack Iran's oil-exporting facilities, is trying to force a partial truce in the three-year-old war. Baghdad wants to have at least a truce at sea - allowing both nations to resume their oil business unhindered - even if the war on land continues.
* In the long run, Iraq's oil reserves will far outlast Iran's.
* European nations - particularly France and West Germany - are more interested in expanding ties to Iraq's oil spigot. Asia's new industrial giants - South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as Japan - are increasingly dependent on Iran's oil and that of other Gulf states whose petroleum moves through the Strait of Hormuz.
* About 80 percent of oil from states abutting the Gulf is shipped out past the strait. Pipelines carry the remaining 20 percent. Of the oil passing through Hormuz in the first quarter of 1983, 90 percent turned east toward Asian industries. Just 10 percent went toward Europe and the Americas. European strategic planners worry that the trade ties thus formed will make it inevitable in the long run that they will be competing with Asia for Gulf-produced oil - and doing so at a disadvantage.
* Pipeline geography plays a major role in this Europe-Asia user split. Four pipelines feeding oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states serve the Mediterranean.
* Under international law and maritime regulations, the Khomeini regime in Iran cannot legally stop tanker traffic through Hormuz. To do so Tehran would have to launch an overt attack on the territorial waters of Oman, through which all Hormuz traffic, outbound and inbound, moves. Or, more likely, it might send disguised irregulars from its Baluchistan shore (near Pakistan) to launch a rocket attack on some tanker or lay mines. Such action is feasible and would skyrocket insurance rates. But its illegality would give Western navies a valid reason for moving in to protect traffic.
* Japan, the outsider with most at stake, is anxiously exerting the most leverage on Iran behind the scenes. Tokyo is playing a sophisticated hand, providing technical aid and trade to both Iran and Iraq. It has quietly increased its trade with Iran in recent months and has sent in technical teams to help Iran complete industrial projects started under the Shah and aborted by the war. Included is a large petrochemical complex.
Japan's foreign minister visited Iran and Iraq this summer in a very carefully prepared trip. Japanese diplomats reportedly showed Iranian leaders computer projections which indicated Tehran would be mistaken if it thought a long war of attrition would be in its favor.
* Both Iranian and Iraqi leaders are known to be deeply irritated at the United States and the Soviet Union for what is seen by the belligerents as a ''serves you right'' attitude.
Policy in Washington since the hostage crisis has been to let Iran stew, with little attention from the US. Experts who have dealt with the Gulf area for decades believe the time may be ripe for Washington and its European and Japanese allies to make an offer to help if a partial cease-fire covering oil facilities on the Gulf is agreed to.
The carrot the West could offer is technicians to help cap war-damaged wells and clean up the Gulf.
Strategists who have studied the history of attempts to end wars generally agree that premature moves are often useless. Such behind-the-scenes attempts are seen by the warring parties as ''meddling.'' And they make the belligerents wary so that when a viable truce solution is later proposed it is sometimes shunned.