Iran-Iraq war: the US stake

THE Persian Gulf war has again intensified. Meanwhile, there have been reports that the United States and the Soviet Union have recently discussed ways to end this terrible conflict. Indisputably, it is time something was done to stop the carnage. It is also obvious that a meeting of minds between the superpowers would increase the chances of a peaceful solution. Yet it should also be clear that mere talk of peace without clarifying its terms or the framework within which it should be achieved will be inadequate. Precisely because this clarity has been lacking, all plans thus far presented by the United Nations Secretary-General, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Islamic Conference have failed.

Today's conventional wisdom holds that Iraq wants peace and that the only impediment is Iran's, or, more specifically, the Ayatollah Khomeini's intransigence and determination to unseat Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein.

At face value, both parts of this statement are true -- but only at face value. The real issues are far more complicated and, as far as Iran is concerned, go beyond the Ayatollah and the Islamic regime.

Iraq does indeed want peace, but on what terms? Generally, Iraq's position has been that there should be a cease-fire, following which the two parties would discuss the terms of peace. Yet, given the war's history and origins, this is not an attractive offer from Iran's perspective.

It is often argued that it is immaterial who started the war and why. But this view is more appealing to outsiders than to Iranians, who have been victims of Iraqi aggression. It is like asking Americans in the 1940s to forget that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

It is also difficult to credit the argument that Iraq invaded Iran because Ayatollah Khomeini's propaganda was endangering Mr. Saddam's regime. If propaganda and subversion were excuse enough to justify invasion, Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt and the Baathists' Iraq should have been invaded a hundred times during the 1960s and '70s. No moderate country in the region, including Iran under the Shah, was then immune from Egyptian and Iraqi propaganda and subversion.

The inescapable fact is that, in 1980, Iran's weakness offered Iraq an irresistible opportunity to separate from Iran the province of Khuzestan -- toward which the Arabs have a longstanding claim -- and thus to eliminate Iran's presence in the Persian Gulf and to achieve the Arab dream of turning it into an Arabian lake.

No Iranian of any political persuasion can forget these historic facts, nor can any not fear that, at another time of Iranian weakness, the Arabs will make another grab for Khuzestan. Thus far neither Iraq nor other Arabs have unequivocally renounced their claims to Khuzestan. On the contrary, Iraq is still harboring the so-called Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz, whose leader gives interviews to Kuwaiti newspapers.

Nor have the Iraqis confronted the issue of Shatt al Arab (Arvand Rud) or the 1975 Algiers Agreement that divided the river along the Thalweg. Yet it is hard to believe that, given a choice, any Iranian regime can hand total sovereignty over Shatt al Arab to Iraq, after having had nearly a million casualties and close to $300 billion in economic damage.

The last point raises the issue of some kind of economic compensation for Iran, an issue not thus far clearly confronted by Iraq or other Arabs.

It is also difficult for Iranians to forget that, when Iraqi troops occupied Iranian lands, neither the United Nations nor the great powers -- nor anyone else -- raised their voices against aggression. Admittedly, the crisis over Americans held hostage in Tehran did not leave much room for sympathy toward Iran. But the issue is not about sympathy but about the defense of principle and international legality.

The international community's silence in the face of Iraq's blatant lawlessness -- while justly punishing Iran for its own -- eroded the moral authority of the United Nations and the great powers as impartial mediators. Their position was further eroded by their lukewarm reaction to Iraq's massive use of chemical weapons.

Thus if the international community finally wants to become serious about trying to end the Iran-Iraq war, it must face certain facts. Putting all the blame at Iran's doorstep will not resolve the problem.

Indeed, it is possible that the Ayatollah Khomeini would not bless even fair and equitable terms for peace. But he should certainly be presented with that problem. If so, and in view of Iran's deteriorating situation and the war's growing unpopularity, pressures on him could become irresistible.

Of course, it is possible to contemplate imposing a humiliating peace on Iran and even the division of the country, should the superpowers agree to do so. But such measures would not bring peace or stability to the Persian Gulf, only more turmoil. Given Soviet strategic advantages, the option of dividing Iran would be a fool's bargain from the US perspective. Such an accord would not last forever; soon all of Iran would fall into Moscow's sphere of influence -- or worse.

Depending on the course of the war, the US may yet have to take drastic action -- including military action -- to defend its vital interests. But it must do so within a proper framework and be extremely cautious not to be caught in the regional power game, which may have little to do with long-term US strategic interests.

Therefore, instead of merely talking about peace and putting the blame only on one side, the United States should help develop a framework based on established rules of international conduct. These include respect for national integrity, the fair settlement of border disputes, and the inadmissibility of gaining territory through aggression. The United States must also overcome its justified dislike for Iran and realize that Iran's disintegration would cause more damage to its interests than perhaps any other possibility would.

Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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