Picking up the pieces from the Gulf war. Lessons for Gulf states - and the world
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IF there is to be a lasting peace between Iran and Iraq, other states in the Gulf region and the great powers must all learn the right lessons from this tragic conflict. They must also apply these lessons to policies toward the peace negotiations and to the longer-term goal of creating and maintaining a stable balance of power in the region. First, Iraq should be disabused of the idea that it won the war, and on its own. The Gulf countries have paid a heavy price for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ambitions. He must not be allowed to reap the fruits of his aggression, such as gaining full sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab (Arvand Rud) waterway. That would only encourage more recklessness and adventurism on his part.Skip to next paragraph
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Second, the Arabs must realize they made a mistake in believing their own propaganda about Iran. The last eight years have proved that Iran is not the hodgepodge of ethnic and linguistic minorities they assumed it to be, a country that would disintegrate with the slightest push from outside. The war has shown there is a strong sense of nationhood and nationalism in Iran. Most important, the Arabs must finally realize that Khuzestan is not Arabistan, as the Iranian province is known to many in the Arab world.
Third, Iran - and especially the Islamic radicals - must realize that they have lost the war, and only they are to blame. Not since the Mongol invasion of the 13th century has Iran seen so much devastation. Some Japanese experts have estimated that it will take Iran 30 years to rebuild its economy. By that time its oil reserves will be all but depleted. If the current 3.5 percent annual rate of population increase continues, in 30 years Iran could become another Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, Iran's historical and cultural heritage, from the pre-Islamic sites of Khuzestan to the blue Mosque of Isfahan - the masterpieces of Islamic architecture - have been blown away. In terms of the destruction of Iran's cultural heritage, President Hussein has matched the Arab armies that burned its libraries and pillaged its treasures 1,400 years ago.
This need not have happened. Iran could have negotiated peace in 1982, as large segments of its public and elements of the Islamic regime demanded. But the ideological rigidity of radical Islamic leaders, their ignorance of how the world works, and their lack of commitment to Iran's survival brought calamity.
Iran's Islamic leaders will not be able to avoid the question posed to them by the Iranian nation: Why did you sacrifice Iran, its youth, its history, its culture, and its future, to pursue a senseless, vague, and doomed goal of Islamic revolution abroad? The Iranian government must also realize that the Arab states of the Gulf, with all their diversities and problems, are not the fragile entities that it thought they were, ready to disintegrate under the pressure. These states have developed into viable national entities, with far greater cohesion and resilience than has generally been assumed.
Fourth, it is vital for all concerned to understand that Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 primarily because the regional balance of power had changed, following the collapse of Iran's military power and the onset of political chaos.
The international community's lack of respect for its own principles also prolonged the war. Had the UN condemned Iraq's aggression and pressed it to withdraw from Iran early in the war, it could have ended much earlier. International rules and principles must be treated as indivisible and be applied irrespective of political preferences.
These lessons contain several policy implications. To begin with, Iraq must guard against overconfidence and excess ambition. It should not try to impose a humiliating peace on Iran. It must realize that unusual circumstances produced international support for Iraq's position - and that this is unlikely to be repeated in the event of another Iraq-Iran war.
Iran's foremost priority should be national reconciliation and resolution of its many internal contradictions. In the process, it will need to draw on its heritage of both nationalism and Islam. If the current regime continues to deride Iranian nationalism and to use Islam as a means of repression, then the country will inevitably plunge into internal strife.
Iran also needs to accept that it must live within the rules of the current international system - despite its flaws and injustices. At the same time, Arabs and Iranians must realize that they must live together. By having a healthy respect for each other's strengths and by refraining from interference in each other's affairs, they can hope for peaceful, if not cordial, relations. Otherwise, continuous and damaging strife will be their lot.
In addition, the international community and the great powers should restrain Iraq. It is no longer threatened; it should be held to a more rigorous code of conduct than it has been for the past several years. If Iran shows good behavior, it should be rewarded; it should be encouraged to rejoin the international system. The great powers should also try to create and maintain a balance of political and military power in the Gulf that will discourage aggression and hegemonic tendencies on the part of states in the region. This balance can best be achieved at a low level of military preparedness; the introduction of increasingly destructive weapons makes it much more difficult to achieve such a balance.
If these lessons are learned and applied, then 1 million young Iranians and Iraqis will not have died in vain.
Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.