Kremlin quandary: which side to choose?

As the war between Iraq and Iran stretches into its fourth week, the Soviet Union is facing an increasingly difficult problem of choice as to whom to support in the conflict.

At first glance, Iraq would appear to be the obvious choice. Moscow and Baghdad are linked by a 1972 treaty of friendship and cooperation, and since 1966 the USSR has been Iraq's main source of arms. In addition, Iraq is a major foe of the US-sponsored Camp David accords and, as a nation with pretensions to leadership in the Arab world, could become the focus for the "anti-imperialist" (i.e., anti-US) Arab unity which Moscow has sought for so long.

Indeed, should Iraq succeed in pulling Saudi Arabia away from its close tie to the West -- a process that was beginning before the Iran-Iraq war erupted -- then Moscow's investment in the government of Saddam Hussein would have paid off handsomely as the USSR would score a major gain in its influence competition with the US in the Middle East.

Also, by aiding Iraq Moscow could demonstrate to the Arab world that it is indeed a reliable ally that can be counted on in time of need, while, at the same time, helping to assure itself and its East European allies of Iraqi oil deliveries.

While all of these factors may act in favor of a clear- cut Soviet decision favoring Iraq, there are a number of significant arguments which could be raised in the Kremlin against such a course of action. First and foremost, the Khomeini revolution detached Iran from its close alignment with the US, thereby striking a major blow the the US position in both the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. In addition, by holding onto the American hostages, the Khomeini regime carries on a daily humiliation of the US, a factor which further lowers American prestige in the region.

Thus any major Soviet aid effort to Iraq contains the possibility of ending the hostage impasse and moving Iran back toward the US. Given Iran's large population (three times that of Iraq) and its strategic position along the Persian Gulf and at the Straits of Hormuz, such a development would clearly not be in Moscow's interest.

Another strategic factor that the USSR must take into consideration is that Iran, unlike Iraq, has a common border with the USSR, as well as with Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. While Iranian efforts on behalf of the Afghan rebels have so far been minimal, one could not rule out a major increase in Tehran's aid to the Afghan rebels should Moscow side with Iraq, as well as a more pronounced effort on the part of Khomeini to infect the USSR's own Muslims with his brand of Islamic fundamentalism than has heretofore been the case.

Finally, as in the case of Iraq, there is an important economic argument. The USSR currently imports, both for its own use and for transhipment of Eastern and Western Europe, significant quantities of Iranian natural gas. Given Iran's large available reserves of this fuel, Moscow, both for itself and its East European allies, may wish to preserve the supply relationship, particularly if -- as some experts predict -- the USSR may run short of oil in the mid-1980s.

Given the conflicting arguments for aiding both sides, it is not surprising that Moscow, so far, has remained relatively neutral in the Iran-Iraq conflict.* Nonetheless, should Iran demonstrate through its treatment of the hostage issue that it continues to perceive the US as the major threat to the Iranian revolution, then one could not rule out a gradual escalation of Soviet aid to Iraq, at least until such a Soviet effort begins to change the perceptions of the Islamic fundamentalist government in Iran.

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