Much of what is now taking place in the Middle East brings to mind an old Arabic curse, "Yakhrub baytak" ("May God destroy your house"). Its implications go beyond the destruction of the building in which an enemy lives. It extends to the family and community of someone who expects to live his entire life in or close to the house in which he was born -- and most certainly with all other members of the community doing the same.
The Israelis know the curse well. In a literal but also symbolic way they inflict punishment in their struggle for the West Bank by destroying with dynamite or a bulldozer the houses of those who are suspected of aiding PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) terrorists. This punishment has meaning that goes beyond the razing of a dwelling. Quite often it is meted out to parents whose sons are PLO activists. The psychology of the act is an Israeli dictum that parents who wish to avoid the loss cannot even have such sons in their homes. The blow being struck is against the concepts of family, community , and nation.
And now it seems that each side in the fighting between Irand and Irag is attempting to bring this curse down upon the head of the other. the wanton destruction of refineries, oil terminals, and petrochemical complexes can contribute only marginally to the outcome of fighting between the two sides. Even without this destruction many outsiders do not see how the Iraqis and Iranians can fight for more than a few weeks. American commentators are mystified when military targets are ignored so that refineries can be bombed. Would not "rational war" have meant avoiding oil facilities (and retaliation) while limiting air strikes to tactical targets?
Instead, in the full sense of the curse, each side is posing as an agent of God to destroy the house of the other. Each has identified the leader of the other with evil -- a false prophet who is the enemy of Islam.
Having done so, how can either hope to work toward a negotiated solution? And it now appears that either a negotiated solution or protracted low level combat are the only likely alternatives.
The Iraqis must have known that the challenge constituted by their attact could only be seen by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini as a signal that they intended his destruction. And from Khomeini's standpoint, if he ism God's spokesman, how can he accept a position of subservience to someone as evil as he depicts Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein?
Over the past 18 months Iran has developed a mode of operation that does not depend upon Western-type organizational effectiveness. The latter characteristic of a government (which is associated with dispensing services to its people) has been sacrificed to what is seen as the more important objective of uprooting evil in preparation for the establishment of a moral society. Thus , even the military defeat of Iran would not bring the social shock of a sudden decline in effectiveness that in more sophisticated settings leads to political shifts that are meant to redress the imbalances that ensue from defeat.
Moreover, someone with Khomeini's attitude will not see the military achievements of the Iraqis as significant. Why should he? Armed with what he considers God's mandate he is morally prepared for the struggle against Satan. From his perspective, the war is another trial in returning Iran to the correct path. The Iraqi attact only justifies Khomeini's efforts at subversion among the Shia population in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrein, and Saudi Arabia. And, in the atmosphere of isolation, hostility, and suspicion that characterizes Khomeini's world it is altogether conceivable that to him both the United STates and the Soviet Union are involved and are urging the Iraqi leader to perpetrate his evil deeds against Iran.
In Turn, Saddam probably sees the Americans as only slightly less suspicious. After all, an Iraqi defeat would so frighten the Saudis, who live in terror of subversion inspired by Khomeini, that they might rush back to the Cairo-Riyadh axis and willingly contribute to the US-sponsored Camp David solution for the Arab-Israeli dispute that Iraq so vehemently opposes. Already the Saudis have moved in this direction by accepting an American-manned early warning radar system. Thus Saddam can conclude that the US has something to gain from Iraq's defeat.
It is under these circumstances that we must assess efforts of other Muslim countries or of the United Nations to gain Iraqi and Iranian acquiescence to peace initiatives. Any move on the part of the US to protect the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz with military forces also has its difficulties. Even otherwise friendly governments in the area are sufficiently uncertain about our effectiveness and their future to have reservations over an unqualified American military presence. We have few assurances as to how they would ultimately react. Conventional diplomacy, it seems, has only limited application among those whose battle cry is theological.