US Walks Tightrope Over Iran and Iraq

IRAQ'S Saddam Hussein wants a new dialogue with the United States. And Iran, although denouncing Washington for recent strikes against Iraq, reportedly is also open to better ties. We must steer a careful course between these two. For US diplomacy they are the Persian Gulf's version of Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology.

America's overall strategy for the Gulf is straightforward. For the next several years we will remain the predominant power there in order to assure the security of global energy supplies.

Let us consider Iraq: Saddam's recent tactical initiatives, while galling, are manageable. United Nations Security Council members, and some Arab states once fully supportive of our firmness vis a vis Iraq, are complaining that the US has recently been acting like Rambo. Obviously, Washington needs to restore its formerly intensive consultations over Iraq within the Security Council. We are embarrassingly isolated as the world tires of the US-Iraq confrontation. Even London and Paris hint at differences with us.

No matter how successfully we restore international cooperation in the handling of Iraq, the Security Council will probably never endorse the no-fly zones. Saddam will press hard to abolish these zones, which he sees as a serious humiliation, citing Baghdad's right under international law to exercise sovereignty throughout its territory. Furthermore, the protection which the zones provide, particularly for the Kurds in the north, is encouraging separatist tendencies within Iraq. Our dilemma has been that , while Washington's policy supports a united Iraq, it simply cannot allow Saddam a free hand to resume his bloody repression of the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south.

A partial answer lies in working with the Iraqi oppositionists in support of Kurdish and Shiite claims to greater autonomy. Our support would be conditioned on their continuing to seek their future within the present borders of Iraq and not in an independent state.

AS for Iran, some argue that we have paid so much attention to Iraq that we have neglected the revival of Iran as a threat to the region. They cite its destabilizing brand of Islamic fundamentalism and its 10-year, $10 billion rearmament program. Others say that, because it is so important a country in the region, we must seek a closer relationship with Tehran.

Iran has always been a major country in the Gulf region and an important player in the world oil market. But it is today a country devastated by war and unlikely either to have a thriving economy or to be a military threat to its neighbors for years to come. We will have to closely monitor its nuclear program.

The passage of time has not yet purged the bad blood which poisoned the atmosphere between Tehran and Washington throughout the 1980s. The American political initiative of the Reagan years remains in place, inviting Tehran to a serious dialogue about issues such as terrorism. But the evidence is scant that Tehran is interested in improving our ties or, if the interest is there, that its current leadership is politically united enough to make a move. The reality is that if an American-Iranian dialogue dev elops it will be clouded over by our determination to remain the number one power in the Gulf, a role which Tehran sees as its own by right of history and geography. Tehran resents our military presence and will spare no effort to diminish it.

For our part it is most unlikely the US will delegate its primary role in Gulf security to any other power.

During the next four years, Washington is unlikely to have warm relations with either Iran or Iraq. However, if our relations are edgy, they need not be openly hostile. We can expect close ties with most of the Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But even those leaderships have their public opinion to worry about and may find it difficult to identify too closely and publicly with us if others in the region persist in a posture sharply critical of Washington. The new administration will have to navigate a narrow diplomatic passage in Gulf relations.

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