IRAN'S persistent demand that the ruling Baath Party in Iraq be eliminated before Tehran will sit down to peace negotiations makes no sense. The Baath is one of the most formidable institutions in the Arab world, hardly likely to disappear from the scene. Iran's clerics must agree to negotiate with the Baathists or else the war is going to drag on forever. Under pressure of the United Nations, Iran has begun to spell out its conditions for agreeing to peace talks.
The Tehran government is most insistent, however, that, before negotiations can commence, the Baath Party must be removed. But who is going to remove it?
The Iranians do not appear to have the capability of driving the Baathists from power. And the Baathists are unlikely to step down voluntarily.
The Baath Party has ruled Iraq since 1968, a respectable duration in the turbulent Middle East.
Before it took over, conditions in the country were appalling. Iraq had the reputation of being practically ungovernable. Military leaders were constantly replacing each other in a series of short-lived coups.
To put an end to anarchy in Iraq, the Baath resorted to harsh, dictatorial methods. The party created the Mukhabarat, an efficient - but brutal - security force. This agency penetrated every area of Iraqi life, ruthlessly crushing any opposition to the party. By 1979, the communists had been scattered into exile, killed, or imprisoned. Following the communists, Dawa, the Shia dissident group, was eliminated.
During the war it appeared for a time that Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, might seek to downgrade his party and make himself into a one-man ruler. The party leaders checked the president's power grab at two party congresses - one in 1982, the other in 1986. The leaders forced Mr. Saddam to observe the principle of collective rule whereby the leaders, along with the president, make all important decisions.
The Baath Party is also well buttressed against a military takeover. Speculation has increased lately that Iraq's generals, disagreeing with the civilian Baathists' direction of the war, might stage a coup.
This theory overlooks the fact that practically all top military men in Iraq are themselves Baathists. Moreover, the civilian Baathists have assigned commissars to all the major military units in order to monitor the commanders' loyalty.
Ironically, the Iranian clerics' repeated insistence that the Baath Party be eliminated has worked to keep the party in power.
The greatest threat to the future of the ruling party is a factional split within it. Yet the Baathists are keenly aware that Iran has marked them all for elimination; this has impelled them to close ranks. In effect, the Baathists are impressed that they must hang together to have any future.
As of now, the Baathists' strategy appears to be to wait out the Iranians. There is no strong institution in Iran comparable to the Baath that can provide for the continuity of the present regime. Hence, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is gone, a power struggle is certain to ensue among his lieutenants. Once this infighting erupts, the Baathists apparently expect the Iranian system will fall apart.
Iran's clerics have had seven years now to try toppling the Baath Party. They have failed, and there seems little likelihood they will ever succeed. They should accept that fact and sit down with the Baathists and, without conditions, negotiate a settlement of the war. Otherwise there will be no end to the fighting.
Stephen C. Pelletiere is a visiting scholar at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the Middle East.