The war between Iraq and Iran is Round 2 in the post-imperial struggle for primacy in the Gulf. It is also a resumption of armed conflict in one of history's centuries-old collisions between two different ethnic and cultural groups, the Arabs and the Persians.
The imperial presence in the Gulf of first the Ottoman Turks and then the British for half of millenium stifled the local rivalry between Arabs and Persians roughly from the time of the European discovery of America until the 1970s. What opened the door for a resumption of this age-old conflict in armed struggle wa Britain's withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971.
Round 1, after 1971, went to the Persians, under their modern-day name of Iran. That was because both Britain and the United States decided that the Shah of Iran was the best choice to fill the vacuum left by the British withdrawal -- and to prevent Soviet power replacing Western power in an area that had become so strategically important because of WEstern dependence on its oil.
At that time, because of the size of Saudi oil reserves and of the longstanding American association with the Saudi royal family, Saudi Arabia was seen (particularly in the US) as the only possible alternative to Iran as a Western surrogate in the Gulg. But Iran won out because of its much bigger population, its greater military potential, and the persuasive sophistication of the Shah himself.
Iraq, however, already was a "sleeper" in the contest. Iraq as such may be a relatively recent post-World War I configuration on the map of the Middle East, but the inhabitants of Baghdad know that their city was a center of Arab and, indeed, world civilization when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages over a thousand years ago.
Those were the days of the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid (AD 766-809), the ruler of the Baghdad of the Thousand and One Nights. A century and a half earlier, in AD 637, the Arabs had defeated the Persians at the battle of Qadisiyah -- and the Arabs of today believe that victory settled the Arab-Persian conflict in their favor for all time.
Current Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein has accused Ayatollah Khomeini, the present symbol of Persian nationalism, of seeking revenge for Qadisiyah. Contemporary Western public opinion is woefully ignorant of history, but Arabs and Persians are not. So in Arab Baghdad there was frustration and anger in the 1970s when the US and Britain bypassed the Arabs and installed the Persian Shah as a Western proxy to keep the peace in the Gulf.
Iraqi frustration was compounded when US and British backing enabled the Shah: to seize (in 1971) three hitherto Arab (but not Iraqi) owned islands at the foot of the Gulf, at the western end of the Strait of Hormuz; to support, in conjunction with Israel, Kurdish insurrection against the government in Baghdad; and (in 1975) to trade away that support in return for a weakened Iraq conceding half of the sovereignty over the Shatt Al Arab estuary at the head of the Gulf.
This was Round 1, which temporarily gave Iran the primacy in the Gulf on which the Shah had set his heart. But that primacy lasted only as long as teh Shah was on the throne. His ouster and the ensuing revolutionary upheaval have uncercut both his country's unquestioned military superiority and its position as the Gulf's No. 2 oil-exporter (after SAudi Arabia). Up into that No. 2 position has moved Iraq.
So Iraq is now up and Iran down -- and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has launched into Round 2 to try to reverse Round 1 and end Iran's pretensions definitively. Not surprisingly, confident Iraqis are calling this past week's fighting "Saddam's Qadisiyah."
But Round 2 is going to be much more risky for the West than was Round 1. This is because it starts 2 without the advantage (or os it seemed at the time) of one of the protagonists being on its side, as was the Shah in the 1970s. In Round 2, both protagonists -- the ruthless, pragmatic, youthful, and secular Saddam Hussein and the venerable, bearded, religious fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini -- have a public record of hostility to the US. In fact, Washington has diplomatic relations with neither country.
Consequently, the scenario for Round 2 has changed since Round 1. The local power relations are significantly different and there is a much greater danger than a decade ago of local rivalries beyond those between Baghdad and Tehran bursting into the open and setting the whole gulf aflame. The threat to the continued safe flow of oil out of the Gulf to the West, Japan, and the nonindustrialized countries of the third world is more immediate.
Beyond all this, the relative influence in the area of the US and the Soviet Union respectively has changed -- to the advantage of the Soviet Union. Yet the Soviet Union so far had behaved with circumspection in the current crisis. Presumably Moscow recognizes the need for caution when a rash move could either provoke nuclear confrontation with the US or ensnare the Krelin ever deeper in the unpredictable and uncontrollable Muslim world.
But even assuming that both Moscow and Washington manage to remain physically on the periphery of the current trial of strength between Iran and Iraq, the conflict could still have daunting and challenging consequences. At this stage, Iran is putting up a tougher fight than most outsiders (and probably Saddam Hussein, too) had expected. But it still seems likelier that Iraq rather than Iran will emerge as the stronger of the two -- at least for the immediate future.
Will Iraqi strong man Hussein, who in the present fighting has the qualified support of most otehr Arab governments both in the Gulf and beyond it, then try to enhance his position as an Arab leader still further?
and would any such attempt be at the expense of those other Arab governments? At the expense of neighboring Kuwait, for example, long coveted by Iraq and offering Iraq the good harbor on the Gulf itself for which the Shatt Al Arab estuary is no substitute?
Or at the expense of the United Arab Emirates and Oman, by an Iraqi resort to force to grav those three islands off their coasts in the Strait of Hormuz seized by the Shah in 1975?
Or of Saudi Arabia, which presumably could acquiesce in an assertion of Iraqi at the expense of Iranian influence in the Gulf only up to a certain limit?
Or, outside the Gulf, at the expense of the present leadership in Syria, traditional "throbbing heart of Arabdom"? Syrian President Assad has long been locked in an ostensibly ideological fight-to-the-finish with President Hussein.