Path to Gulf peace?

It does not seem that Iran and Iraq have exhausted themselves enough in battle to accept diplomatic mediation of their dispute. The general expectation is for a long, low- level war of attrition. Yet it would be a pity if the international community accepted such a prognosis out of a feeling of helplessness and did not bend every effort to seek a negotiated settlement as quickly as possible. The danger is that, with more and more states becoming involved in the feud, it may become increasingly difficult to contain the fighting. Diplomacy must be ready to spring into action.

There are glimmers of possibility. From the United Nations comes a report that Iran is weighing taking its case against Iraq to the Security Council. This would be a positive development. The Iranians have been boycotting the UN because of the organization's stand on the US hostage issue. But the war with Iraq has sharply pointed up just how isolated and friendless Iran has become in the world. With Jordan openly lined up with Iraq, with the Arab Muslims generally sympathetic to Baghdad, with dissident Iranian forces operating in Iraq with a view to overthrowing the Khomeini regime, with the Russians waiting for any opportunity to exploit, Iran sits in a precarious position. It would therefore make sense for Tehran to try to break out of its isolation and, above all, restore its ties with the United States.

This would necessitate resolving the hostage issue, of course, and this is where the US must be in a high state of alertness. Some diplomats believe this may be an opportune moment to get the hostages released. But this will require the most careful diplomacy. Iran continues to remain deeply suspicious that Washington, because of supposed animosity to the Islamic revolution, is backing Iraq. The supply of US radar planes to Saudi Arabia and American plans to send attack planes and an Army rapid deployment force to Egypt -- while defensive moves to protect the Gulf region -- feed the suspicions.

Somehow a forceful way must be found of persuading Iran that the US is absolutely neutral in the conflict and is not working to bring down Ayatollah Khomeini. This could involve, perhaps, a move toward the unblocking of Iranian assets or toward a formal "apology." The latter demand has publicly been turned down by the White House, largely out of domestic political considerations. But surely a formula can be devised that would satisfy both the US and Iran, which will place its own face-saving interpretation on whatever emerges. In any case, it is to be presumed that the US foreign policy establishment is not sitting idle in these critical days but is assiduously probing for an opening.

Iraq, for its part, while it seems to be getting the better of the fighting, finds itself in more or less of a stalemate. It had counted on quickly overwhelming the Iranians. But it failed to see that, however politically turbulent the situation in Iran, the Iranian armed forces would rally to the defense of their country. Iranians, whatever their politics, cannot see their country humiliated. Instead of weakening the Khomeini government the war thus seems to have strengthened it.

It should not be ruled out, therefore, that before long both sides will be disposed to seek an end of the conflict. A Security Council meeting would not automatically resolve the dispute; if past experience is a guide, such a meeting would likely become the forum for denunciatory speeches. But, once at the UN, the principals could perhaps be quietly nudged behind the scenes to agree to third- party mediation. If such a course seems a long shot, it ought to be pursued all the same. Continued lawlessness -- whether hostage keeping or war -- does not serve the long- term interests of Iran or Iraq. A return to the protective panoply of international law does.

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