The US and the bottom line in the Gulf

By , Mr. Axelgard is a research associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University.

The Western watch on the Persian Gulf now begins in earnest. Against serious international and domestic pressures, France has delivered five Super-Etendard fighter bombers to Iraq. The world now waits to see whether this sophisticated weaponry will turn the 37-month-old Gulf war into a regional inferno or help bring it to an end.

The explosive situation in the Gulf, however, encompasses more than the Super Etendards. Other Iraqi options for hitting Iranian economic targets recently became apparent when Iraq pronounced new threats in response to recent Iranian attacks on the northern front of the war. These included the announced mining of Bandar Khomeini, an Iranian commercial port near the head of the Gulf; Iraq's assertion that Iran's main oil export terminal at Kharg Island is also in the ''zone'' of the mined area; Iraq's warning to Japan that it intends to strike at the huge Japanese-built petrochemical project onshore at Bandar Khomeini; and Iraqi missile attacks on towns more than 120 miles inside Iran, indicating that Iraq may now have surface-to-surface missiles capable of reaching Kharg Island without the use of aircraft.

With no progress toward a political solution, the proliferation of military threats appears to be inching matters toward a possible conflagration, centered on the oil lanes in the Gulf.

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Iraq's new threats not only highlight the explosiveness of the immediate situation. They also sharpen the broader picture by driving home the abiding issue of Iraq's growing economic desperation and the danger that Iran could win the war of attrition decisively. Iraq claims it must now force Iran to negotiate by attacking its economic lifeline or involve major outside powers by provoking a major threat to the flow of Persian Gulf oil.

The fact that Iraq's continued economic deterioration would make possible an Iranian takeover seems somehow to have been lost on the West. This possibility of a Khomeini-dominated Islamic state in Iraq is the current ''bottom line'' in the Gulf, a consequence whose strategic implications far outweigh Lebanon's, rival those in Central America and the Caribbean, and could even relegate a short-term shutoff of Gulf oil to secondary importance. For such a defeat of Iraq would bring Iranian pressure right up to the borders of Syria and Jordan on the one hand, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on the other. From there Iran would be in a position to destabilize the entire region, through intimidation or subversion of the conservative Arab states in the Gulf, or with campaigns against Jordan and pressures on Syria which could heat up Arab-Israeli tensions beyond the point of no return.

In view of this ''bottom line,'' it must be pointed out that the prevailing demographic and economic imbalances ultimately favor Iran, with or without Iraq's use of the Super Etendard.

As for the immediate military context, one military analyst labels as ''drivel'' the claim that the Super Etendard-Exocet combination has the capability to take out Iran's oil facilities at Kharg Island. Too, the Iraqi pilots have only 14 weeks training. The Super Etendards could become pivotal only if they were the opening wedge of a sustained program to deliver large amounts of advanced French military equipment to Iraq - which could eventually alter the overall military balance and permanently prevent Iran from dominating Iraq. And this proposition is highly unlikely, given the strong domestic French opposition to the Super Etendard sale, and the immediacy of France's other foreign policy concerns in Chad and Lebanon.

What all this means is that whether or not the Super Etendards are used, and whether or not Iran attempts to block the Strait of Hormuz, the West will still face the danger of an Iranian takeover of Iraq. This danger will remain for the short term - definable as Khomeini's lifetime - and perhaps longer. It would remain, and might even be exacerbated, if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were removed from power. Would Khomeini abandon his messianic and expansionist goals once he saw Iraq weakening politically? Probably not. The bombings in Beirut provide up-to-date evidence of Khomeini's long-stated ambition to play a major political role in the region.

Given these assumptions, the immediate interest of the United States and the West is clearly to help preserve Iraq's sovereignty. Furthermore, since Iraq appears to be managing the military aspect of the war, the best role for the Western powers would be economic in nature. In the long run, US reliance on multilateral economic measures could also help minimize the antagonism Western support of Iraq would cause in Iran.

While Iran is admittedly the long-term ''strategic prize'' in the Gulf, it is in the short term that US interests are under fire: from the terrorist attacks on the marines in Beirut to the threatened closure of Hormuz and an Iranian takeover of Iraq. And US policy to address these issues cannot be simply to wait for Khomeini's death.

Nor should we assume that modest US support of Iraq would be unforgivable to the next generation of Iranian leaders. When the entrenched mullahs succeed Khomeini, they will have enough to worry about without having an Iraq-sized, Arabic-speaking province to govern in the west. They will also appreciate a pretext to wind down the war once they realize that its continued wasting of Iranian lives dims their halos at home a good deal more quickly than it has Khomeini's.

In short, strong arguments can be made that discreet efforts by the US and the West to help prevent the Gulf war from tipping decisively against Iraq would achieve essential short-term goals while producing no additional obstacles to renewing US-Iran relations in the long run.

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