In a technical sense, it would not be that difficult to cap the war-damaged wells now spilling oil into the Gulf. A United Nations official explains that special teams of experts could be quickly flown to the offshore Iranian oil field of Nowruz to repair damaged wells that are believed to be spewing out 4, 000 barrels of crude oil a day. But, as the official correctly points out, the problem has not been technical or mechanical; it has been political. And to a large extent it is based on fear - fear that a temporary cessation of hostilities would be used to gain a permanent ceasefire in the 31-month-old Iraq-Iran war.
It is tragic that the war has gone on as long as it has. For that very reason some Gulf officials have used the oil spill as an opportunity for arranging an end to the war. The UN and the Gulf states should be unyielding in their efforts to bring about such a ceasefire.
At the same time, it is now clear that something must be done - and as quickly as possible - to halt the spill, which represents a danger to Gulf marine life and fishing as well as to some 26 desalting plants throughout the region that provide much-needed fresh water supplies. Given the urgency of the situation, what can be done?
Surely the leaders of Iran and Iraq can rise above the emotion of war to join the Gulf nations represented in the Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment - the regional body to which Iran and Iraq both belong - to allow a cleanup to go forward. Failure to do so could cause environmental damage to the Gulf. Willingness to accept a cleanup under the aegis of the regional group would be welcomed by the UN, which would then be free to go forward with longer-range efforts for a ceasefire to the war itself. Neither side need identify such a momentary cessation of hostilities with the longer-term diplomatic negotiations under way.
Sooner or later, the war will cease. Iran and Iraq will then be faced with the task of working together in the Gulf. But, if that spill is not taken care of now, what kind of Gulf will it be?