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Can One US Fence Hold Two Foes?

US effort to contain Iraq and Iran draws fire amid new tensions with Baghdad.

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 1997


Two years after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, President Clinton gave his blessing to a strategy designed to ensure access by industrialized powers to the world's largest oil reserves.

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The plan: combine American muscle with sanctions and international solidarity to keep both Iraq and Iran - which the US perceived as the biggest threats to stability in the region - weak and isolated. As autocratic rivals and advocates of anti-Western extremism, they would be walled off until their behavior changed.

Now, as yet another showdown with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatens to draw the United States into its eighth military confrontation with Iraq in six years, Mr. Clinton's "dual containment" strategy is coming under scrutiny amid calls for an overhaul.

Administration officials say they are sticking by the policy, insisting it has preserved Gulf stability and safeguarded the flow of 62 percent of the world's petroleum supplies. "We are quite comfortable with dual containment," asserts a senior official.

But critics argue that the policy treats two different problems in the same inflexible way, lacks international support, costs billions of scarce defense dollars, and exposes US troops in the region to terrorism. Even some Defense Department analysts appear concerned that the policy has become difficult to sustain.

"It is not clear that a stringent containment policy can be maintained over time," warns the Strategic Assessment 1997, a review of US security challenges by the Pentagon's National Defense University.

Administration officials and their supporters argue there are no better options for dealing with two of the gravest threats to US security and international order.

Despite differences with the European allies, Russia, and China, US officials say dual containment has kept Saddam "in a box," unable to rebuild his army or exert his influence over parts of Iraq covered by two United Nations-decreed no-fly zones that are mainly enforced by American aircraft.

Similarly, they contend, the ambitions of Iran's Islamic rulers have been constrained. With 20,000 US naval, air, and ground forces deployed in the region, they cannot threaten international shipping or the region's smaller pro-West Arab oil kingdoms. The allies are also cooperating in thwarting alleged Iranian-backed terrorism, they say.

Urging separate policies for each

Critics, however, contend that the policy lacks balance and cannot succeed because international support for isolating Iran economically is seriously flagging. With Saddam the greater threat, the US should begin exploring ways of opening a dialogue with Iran, they say. That would give the US greater leverage in winning allied backing for ousting the Iraqi dictator, they say.

"To lump them together brings no clarity, but only confusion to policy," says Graham Fuller, a former senior CIA official who is now an analyst at the RAND Corp., an influential think tank. "We end up trying to corral reluctant allies, both European and Middle Eastern, into a common position that they are unwilling to accept and as a result, it weakens us."

Saddam's latest challenge - an order expelling American members of UN teams hunting for his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons - has highlighted US problems in maintaining international support for its policy despite repeated Iraqi breaches of the Gulf War cease-fire.