Picking up the pieces from the Gulf war. Iraq after the cease-fire

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IRAN's acceptance of the United Nations cease-fire to end the war with Iraq has led to speculation over the motives behind Iran's decision. Whether this decision presages important changes in the course of the Islamic revolution, and what this means to the future of United States-Iranian relations, have dominated headlines. Thoughtful analysis of postwar US-Iraqi relations, however, has been characteristically scarce. America must maximize its gains from the cease-fire by pursuing close relations with Iraq as well as with Iran.

The goals of US diplomacy should be clear: Strengthening ties with Iraq will increase the possibilities for achieving peace in the Gulf, for maintaining stability between Iraq and Iran and in the region in general, and for improving economic and political relations for the US.

In the interest of maintaining this shaky cease-fire, developing US relations with Iraq will continue the peace momentum and convince the Iraqis of Iran's seriousness in accepting the cease-fire.

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Moreover, a US policy focused only on Iran would be shortsighted, missing an opportunity to strengthen ties with a secular state that helped stop the spread of Islamic radicalism.

Also, an isolated Iraq is a perfect Soviet springboard to the Gulf. Should the US show favoritism toward Iran, such a situation might lead the Iraqis to counterbalance the US rapprochement with Iran by a Soviet-tilt policy. This would increase the two superpowers' confrontation in the Gulf and secure a Soviet foothold in this strategic area.

In addition, postwar Iraq is important to the US economically. Primary agricultural commodities make up the bulk of US exports to Iraq, which totaled $700 million in 1987-88. Trade between the two countries is expected to grow in the future; in 1987, the two countries signed a bilateral trade agreement to increase commercial relations.

Also, Iraq will resume the five-year development plans disrupted by the war. Iraq's population of 16 million and the expected growth in consumption and demand will increase the volume of US trade with Iraq.

Many attempts have been made to mend US relations with Iran (the Iran-contra affair, for example), which were shattered after the fall of the Shah, to encourage moderate elements in Iran's leadership. Sensitive issues such as the hostage crisis and the downing of an Iranian jetliner have continued to focus national attention on the status of US-Iranian relations.

On the other hand, Iraq's support for Abu Nidal and opposition to recognition of Israel have characterized Iraq as a radical state supporting international terrorism and opposing US efforts to bring peace to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But over the last few years, Iraq has steered a more moderate course: restoring relations with the US, expelling Mr. Nidal, and backing away from opposing Egypt's peace with Israel.

So what should the US do to promote Iraqi cooperation in the future?

The US should cultivate diplomatic ties with Iraq by promoting a Jordan-Egypt-Iraq axis. As a result of Jordan's and Egypt's support of Iraq during the war, it would be logical for this relationship to mature during peacetime. This would incorporate Iraq with two moderate Arab countries in questions related to Mideast peace efforts.

The US should encourage Iraq to achieve regional stability in the Gulf through the widened perspective of a US-Iraqi-Saudi Arabian Gulf states axis. This would strengthen the lines of communication between Iraq and the Arab countries of the Gulf, leading to a greater understanding of Arab requirements in questions such as freedom of navigation in the Gulf and territorial waters. This, in turn, would make it more difficult for any single country to challenge the status quo in the Gulf.

There should also be increased economic cooperation between the US and Iraq. The US-Iraqi economic cooperation should focus on projects such as irrigation on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, rebuilding the port of Basra, and others.

By pursuing the initiatives outlined above, the US and other countries are not intended to exercise a power condominium over Iraq. Rather, it means the inclusion of Iraq in a regular and intensive US diplomatic effort to keep communication lines open for further Iraqi cooperation. The US should recognize that despite the devastation war has wrought on Iraq, the country has found implicit recognition of victory by forcing Iran to accept a cease-fire and Iraq has emerged with a sense of honor and dignity among its Arab neighbors.

Moreover, Iraq's use of chemical weapons should not cast reservations about improving US relations with this nation; the United States developed economic and political ties with several present allies, despite their past war crimes. Also, these regional axes do not mean building blocs to counter other groups in the Middle East. They are instead intended to maximize the chances for the success of US diplomacy with Iraq.

Without a multilateral framework for coordinating US relations with Iraq, there can be no viable regional order in the Middle East and disputes will continue to arise. The big task for the US is to start its diplomatic efforts with Iraq now to make its leadership visible in achieving peace, stability, and improvement of economic and political relations.

Bill S. Mikhail is a member of the research staff at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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