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Iraq and Iran Use Truce for Massive Arms Buildups. COLD WAR IN THE GULF

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 1989



MANAMA, BAHRAIN

IRAN and Iraq are locked in a ``no war, no peace'' stalemate that is perpetuating regional animosities rather than preparing the way for peace. The prospects for this year in the Gulf should be better than during any of the past eight years of bitter fighting. But since August, when the Gulf war cease-fire began, both sides have dug in their heels at peace talks and launched massive efforts to rearm with conventional weaponry, long-range missiles, and new stockpiles of chemical weapons.

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A range of Gulf-based political analysts surveyed for this article, including government officials, diplomats, and businessmen, anticipate a protracted ``cold war'' between Baghdad and Tehran.

The ``no war, no peace'' status quo, these analysts say, will discourage a much-anticipated economic recovery and hinder investment in reconstruction efforts. It will also complicate attempts within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to take a unified stand aimed at drying up the world oil glut and stabilizing prices. That, in turn, could deepen budget deficits throughout the Gulf.

``It is going to be a long time of `Twilight Zone' with nothing happening, really,'' says a Gulf-based diplomat. ``The war went on for eight years. It will take at least that long to end it.''

Following a year of great surprises - including Iraq's successful counteroffensives in the Gulf war and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's acceptance of a United Nations peace resolution - 1989 looks to be a year of slow transition.

A badly mauled Iran is gasping to catch its breath by boosting oil production capacity, enacting economic reforms, ending its diplomatic isolation, and rebuilding the armed forces. Ayatollah Khomeini has called for creation of a 20 million-strong volunteer militia. Efforts are under way to replace the billions of dollars' worth of military hardware lost or captured during the fighting.

The Iranian government also appears intent on continuing a post-cease-fire crackdown on political opponents. The international human rights organization Amnesty International confirmed that Iran has recently executed more than 300 political prisoners. Iranian exiles claim that the true number is in the thousands.

On the Iraqi side, there has been some token demobilization of forces from the estimated one-million-man Army. But the Iraqis are reported to be continuing to push for development of new military technologies, including long-range missiles, anti-missile missiles, and super-toxic biochemical weapons.

On a broader scale, President Saddam Hussein is keen to cash in on his claim of having saved the Arab world from the Iranian revolution.

The recent Iraqi arming of Lebanon's Christians is seen as a first step by President Hussein in fulfilling his aspiration of playing a greater, pan-Arab role. The move suggests that Iraq and Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, are on a collision course. At the same time, the confident, battle tested Iraqi military is a source of concern not only to Israel, but also to the richer yet weaker Arab states to the south.

The financially strapped Gulf sheikhdoms and emirates will remain on the sidelines of the Iran-Iraq dispute. They will sell oil, encourage investment and economic progress at home, and build up their own token defense forces. Privately, they will continue to vigorously support the presence of the 14 US Navy ships that patrol the Gulf and the 10 US warships on patrol in the Arabian Sea.

Into this equation must be inserted the biggest unknown of the coming year: the health of 87-year-old Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution. His death has been rumored to be imminent since last summer.

Some analysts argue that the passing of Khomeini would be a major blow to the Gulf peace process. They note that without Khomeini's personal approval of a comprehensive treaty, it would be difficult to marshal broad support in Iran for such a move. They stress that it may be politically impossible for a lesser Iranian leader to take that ultimate step toward reconciliation with Saddam Hussein. Khomeini has repeatedly branded the Iraqi President as an ``enemy of Islam.'' Khomeini's death could even trigger an all-out civil war between competing factions within Iran's revolutionary hierarchy.

``It is clear that all the way up to the peace agreement the process needs the authority of Imam Khomeini,'' says a diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East. ``There is no one else today or in the immediate aftermath [once Khomeini dies] who has the prestige to get the Iranians to go along on this.''

The diplomat adds, ``This is the most dangerous aspect of the Iran-Iraq deadlock.''

Gulf-based analysts remain divided on the related issue of whether the Iranian government is sincere in halting the export of Islamic revolution to neighboring states.

Some say such revolutionary efforts have run out of steam in war-weary Iran. Others say it may be only a matter of time before Iran once again activates its natural connection with Shiite minorities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Pakistan.

Much depends on internal developments within the Iranian revolutionary hierarchy and the scramble to fill Khomeini's shoes when he dies.

``I think the [revolutionary] rhetoric has cooled. There are, however, tens of thousands of Revolutionary Guards who are now unemployed. And that creates a ready force for a possible [Islamic] crusader army,'' a diplomat says.

In addition, analysts warn that militant underground Shiite groups outside Iran may act on their own, deciding to launch new violent attacks in the hopes of sparking Islamic uprisings or making a political point.

A pro-Iranian group in London, ``Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,'' claimed responsibility for the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 last month over Scotland. They said the attack was a retaliation for the accidental downing of an Iranian commercial jet by the US last July over the Strait of Hormuz. But US and British intelligence officials have said they are discounting the claims.