Western capitals that must be anxious spectators of the Iran-Iraq war are relieved as it goes into its fifth week (it began on Sept. 22) that the two worst possibilities have not yet occurred, and indeed seem to be receding.
The first danger was that it might spread to other oilbearing countries around the Gulf and thus cut off entirely the flow of oil on which the economies of the modern industrial world too heavily depend.
The second danger was that Iraq might win such a speedy and decisive victory over Iran that the political structure of that country would be shattered, it would fall apart, and others would begin to collect the pieces. Moscow would presumably be among the collectors. At that point North America, Western Europe , and Japan would find themselves negotiating with Moscow over the oil necessary to keep their economies going.
On both counts -- spreading of the war and fragmentation of Iran -- there seems to be less likelihood now that the first shock of the war itself has been absorbed. Other countries have taken sides, one way or the other. But that has not led to any spread of the fighting. The Gulf has not been closed. The oil continues to flow in unabated quantity out of the Gulf, except for Iran and Iraq.
And, while Moscow is obviously watching with unconcealed interest the course of events along its own southern border, the political fragmentation that might have tempted the men of Moscow to intervene has not occurred.
Indeed, the most intriguing single fact that has emerged is that Moscow and Washington have both tended to tilt toward Iran, as though both recognized the danger an Iranian collapse would mean to them. Moscow appears to have offered weapons to Iran -- even though in the past it has been the main supplier of arms to Iraq. And on Monday of this past week (Oct. 20) President Carter and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie confirmed that if the Iranians would release the US hostages, the United States would at once lift the embargo on goods leaving the US for Iran. This would automatically release to Iran large quantities of weapons that Iran has bought and that, in fact, belong to Iran.
The US policy was not one of taking sides baldly in favor of Iran although it was so interpreted by the Iraqis. It was rather a recognition of a plain fact that the fragmentation of the Iranian state would unsettle the whole Middle East to the disadvantage of almost everyone concerned, including the US itself.
Secretary Muskie stated it accurately: "We are opposed to the dismemberment of Iran." President Carter made it a little stronger: "It is to our advantage to have a strong Iran."
The danger of dismemberment of the Iranian state lies in the fact that it is not inhabited by a homogenous people. It could more properly be called the Persian Empire. It is an area peopled from diverse racial stocks who have been conquered by the Persians. The Persian language dominates, and some 66 percent of the population is listed as being Indo- European. However, among the "Indo-Europeans" are Baluchis in the southeast. In the northwest are the Kurds with a language of their own and a strong sense of separate identity. Also there are Turks in both northeast and northwest who make up 25 percent of the total population. Down in the southwest where the fighting is now going on, the people are mostly Arabs and kin to the Arabs of Iraq.
By contrast with Iran, Iraq's people are 78 percent of the one, Arab, stock. And most of the others (18 percent) are Kurds living by themselves in the north. Iraq, except for the Kurds off by themselves, is a homogenous community. The Iraqis are a nation. Iran is a collection of peoples ruled by Persians from Tehran. Iran is ethnically fragile.Iraq is not.
Moscow has long wanted Iran's northern province of Azerbaijan, which is peopled mostly by persons of Turkish stock. The Soviets occupied it during World War II and showed a marked reluctance to get out after the war when required to do so by contract with the US and Britain.
All of Iran's neighbors would probably want a piece of it should events break it up. The possibility causes Western diplomats many sleepless nights. The most comforting angle of the matter at the moment is that Moscow seems to have concluded that, much as it might like its own share of a fractured Iran, it is on balance more prudent to help in saving Iran as it is.
How best then to save it?
Obviously, a shattering military defeat would be bad for Iran and bad for all those who prefer to regain stability in the Middle East. That has not occurred. The Iraqis have been making progress, but slowly. They themselves say all they want is to get control of the oil-bearing coastal plain around Abadan. They say they will be ready and willing to negotiate when they have that. Besides, they claim that all they want is a boundary settlement that will assure them of the ability to ship their oil safely out of Basra, their only port.
The twin dangers for the Western countries that have been inherent in the Iran-Iraq war have had an interesting effect on those Western countries. An informal grouping has evolved. French and British have put naval units into the Indian Ocean alongside American units. The Australians have joined in. Joint naval maneuvers have taken place. The unofficial "allies" now outnumber the Soviet naval presence in the Indian Ocean by a wide margin. The West Germans have been using their "good offices" with the Iraqis with whom they have been enjoying a rapid increase in mutual trade. West Germany is now Iraq's largest single supplier.
Another side effect of the Iran-Iraq war has been to improve Western relations with the other inhabitants of the Gulf -- principally Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. These Arab communities, who have a primary interest in stability and in the regular flow of trade in and out of the Gulf, are increasingly willing to accept the idea of a Western stabilizing role.
However, there seems to be little serious prospect for an immediate release of the American hostages. Washington's hopes on this score tend to overlook the depth of the anti- American sentiment in Iran and its usefulness to the existing regime. Mr. Carter's offer to lift the embargo in return for the hostages probably sounded almost indecent to Iranian ears. The Ayatollah regards Mr. Carter as "Satan." He calls him precisely that. He is not yet in such desperate straits that he must deal with "Satan." He probably gains in political prestige at home by refusing such "deals."