The US and Iraq

THE restoration of full diplomatic ties between the United States and Iraq is a welcome step in creating a broader framework for peace in the Persian Gulf - and possibly the Middle East as a whole.

Many imponderables remain. To what extent does the relationship indicate a genuine moderation on the part of Iraq, particularly concerning Iraqi hostility to Israel? To what extent is the relationship merely a marriage of convenience - one of the side results of the still unresolved Iran-Iraq war? Does the linkup provide a larger diplomatic axis on which to create a new grouping of moderate states in the Middle East? In short, some caution is warranted in reading too much into the restoration of diplomatic ties after the meeting earlier this week between President Reagan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. But acknowledging such imponderables is not to discount the genuinely positive result of the resumption, especially insofar as the ties add leverage for nudging Iran to the bargaining table.

The US has sought an end to the four-year Iran-Iraq war through diplomatic efforts.

Iraq broke off ties with the United States in 1967, during the Arab-Israeli war. In recent years, however, in large part because of the Iranian-Iraqi conflict, the two nations have edged closer. The US is concerned that a victory by religiously fundamentalist Iran could threaten the more conservative oil-rich Muslim states in the Gulf. Iraq, for its part, has turned to the West for military assistance, despite close diplomatic links with the Soviet Union, its main arms supplier.

What do both sides gain by the recognition?

* The Iran-Iraq war: For the short run, not so much has changed. The Iranians are expected to discount the effect of the new diplomatic ties, since there has been a de facto diplomatic relationship now for several years. In fact, the formal ties may even bring renewed national fervor in Iran to seek to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The ouster of Hussein has been a major condition for peace on the part of Iran.

Looking down the road, however, the US-Iraq linkup cannot be minimized. Iraq now has full diplomatic ties with both the Soviet Union and the US. The US, meantime, has not had formal diplomatic ties with Iran since relations were broken during the hostage crisis. Although the US says it will remain neutral in the war, there is always the possibility that Iraq could eventually gain access to US military equipment, as well as generous economic assistance. All this, added together, may give Iraq additional manuevering room for waiting out the war with Iran - an advantage that economically hard-pressed Iran does not have. The upshot could be greater leverage in getting Iran to the diplomatic table.

It would seem best for the US to remain neutral toward the two combatants. While regional US security objectives would stand to lose by an Iranian victory, the US could also lose by an Iranian defeat, since there would be the possibility of Soviet subversion in Iran.

* The Middle East in general: The long-range implications will not be known for some time. But symbolically, both sides profit. Iraq - which was a front-line state dedicated to the overthrow of Israel - appears to be more moderate. That moderation is evidenced, for example, in Iraq's closer relationship with Egypt. And Iraq has publicly suggested that any comprehensive Middle East settlement must include a security arrangement for Israel as well as the Palestinians.

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