Insulating the Persian Gulf

Why are Iraq and Iran at war, and what are likely to be the consequences of that war to the Western democracies? These are questions that 50 years ago, if such a war had occurred there, would have seemed trivial and been ignored by everyone outside the region. Today the answer to them impinges on some of the most vital interests of the United States and its allies.

Iraq and Iran are at war: (1) because a tentative settlement in 1975 of their long- standing territorial differences was considered by the Iraqis as having been forced upon them by the Shah, and as unfavorable to them because it placed the hostile Iranians on one bank of the Shatt Al Arab estuary, Iraq's only outlet to the Persian Gulf; (2) because the imbalance of power in Iran's favor which existed in 1975 has been reversed by the disorganization following the Khomeini revolution and by the consolidation of Iraqi power under its current strongman Saddam Hussein; and (3) because strident Iranian propaganda calling for a revolt of the "faithful" against "satanic" rulers, directed at the large Shiite minority in Iraq, has been deemed by its Sunni rulers an intolerable threat not only to their religion but to their political control.

How is the war likely to come out? The most probably prospect seems to be that the war will peter out before long because the Iraqis will have achieved their main objectives, control of the Shatt Al Arab and "teaching the Iranians a lesson," while the disorganization of Iran's armed forces and their dependence on the United States for spare parts will make it difficult for them to continue to fight effectively. This does not mean that Iran will recognize Iraq's territorial gain, will abandon its objectionable behavior, or will not prepare to resume the fighting whenever it can.

Despite this relatively reassuring prognostication, there will be several side effects of the war. The Khomeini regime may be shaken by its setback, though the immediate effect has been to rally Iranians around it. The importance of the armed forces will be enhanced. The position of the American hostages is more precarious while hostilities continue and passions are high, but thereafter prospects for their release may improve as Iranians realize that their military power cannot be maintained without help from the United States or elsewhere.

If Iraq emerges as the victor, its prestige will increase and it will endeavor to play a larger role in the Persian Gulf, in intra-Arab councils, and in the Arab-Israeli conflict. While it is in Iraq's interest to keep the Gulf quiet so that its oil can move freely, its policies otherwise tend to be "radical," particularly its policy toward Israel. It is unlikely, however, to act as a pawn of the Soviet Union.

The Iraq-Iran war has given the rest of the world, including the other Gulf states, a dramatic reminder of how unstable the region is. While the flow of oil, except from the two combatants, will probably not be seriously affected this time, it is easy to see how some other intraregional hostilities, between Gulf states or inside them, could more decisevely curtail the flow.

The West is therefore being warned again of its folly in allowing its economies to become so dependent on supplies from such an unstable region that a total stoppage could bring about economic paralysis in several of the democracies. What could be done to overcome this dependence, or to make sure that it is not mortally damaging?

As to the first, it is obvious that the development of alternative sources of energy, whether from new petroleum exploration, from unconventional sources, cannot have much impact during the coming decade. Only the wider use of coal, with necessary environmental safeguards, stockpiling of oil, and conservation, much more stringent and effectively enforced than hitherto, could mitigate the consequences of interruption of supplies from the Gulf during the 1980s.

Are there military measures which the United States and its allies could take to assure that instability there does not interfere with the flow of oil? If the Soviet Union should endeavor to interfere there are counter measures of ascending impact the US could take. However, Soviet leaders are so acutely aware that the West would consider interruption of essential oil supplies as a casus belli that they are most unlikely to intervene, except possibly in response to Western military intrusions there.

As a means of reacting against conflicts inside or among Gulf states, Western military presences, such as the US rapid deployment force, are of limited utility. There may be cases where governments threatened by overthrow may call on them for assistance, but even then the Us would have to consider carefully whether such intervention was wise and would be successful. If such "assistance" were introduced without an invitation, it might unite local factions against the "imperialist" outsiders and be highly counter- productive. The Saudi foreign minister has recently said that a multinational naval force despatched to the Gulf would be an "overreaction" to the Iraq-Iran war.

The two most productive means for the Western nations to promote stability in the area would be, first, to maintain as cooperative relations as possible with all the Gulf states, including even Iraq and Iran, and, second, for this purpose to exert themselves much more resolutely and evenhandedly than in the past to bring about a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since this is the main cause of friction between the Arabs of the Gulf and the United States.

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