An effectual coincidence of interests has recently brought United States-Iraqi relations to their highest point in over 15 years. This is shown by Iraq's clear support of Arab-Israeli negotiations and its assent to the US-sponsored accord between Lebanon and Israel.
American foreign-policy makers have long seen Iraq as an implacably anti-Israeli regime from which they could expect little constructive support, citing Iraq's vehement rejection of the Camp David accords, the absence of diplomatic relations with the US since the 1967 war, and its blanket refusal to accept UN Resolution 242. What, then, might explain the recent harmony in US and Iraqi approaches to regional issues?
The answer is closely related both to Iraq's war with Iran and last year's war in Lebanon.
It was just as events in Lebanon were boiling over last June that Iraq's September 1980 invasion of Iran came home to roost. A series of major reversals led Iraq to withdraw its troops from Iran in June. Iran then launched a series of attacks against Iraq which were repelled with increasing decisiveness. Nevertheless, the resulting war of attrition along roughly the prewar border ultimately places Iraq, as the smaller, more vulnerable state, at a serious disadvantage.
Iraq's most pressing problems since last year have been economic rather than military. First, in April 1982 Syria cut off Iraq's oil pipeline to the Mediterranean, the last of several crippling blows which have reduced Iraqi oil exports to less than a quarter of their prewar level. Later in the year the conservative Gulf monarchies slowed their financial aid to Iraq, reflecting among other things the budgetary limitations they face because of the soft oil market.
Thus, facing possible economic strangulation and an indefinite war of attrition with Iran, Iraq felt keenly the need to end the war - something it had long insisted the superpowers were able to deliver.
Meanwhile, Israel's invasion of Lebanon forced the PLO's withdrawal from Beirut. This was followed first by the Reagan peace initiative and then by the Arab summit meeting at Fez, which unanimously endorsed the concept of a negotiated (as opposed to a military) solution to the 35-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
This ''Let's negotiate'' posture of the Arabs appears to have been an important opening for Iraq to curry US support for ending its war with Iran - an opening which widened when Iraq's close ally, King Hussein of Jordan, began his dialogue with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat over possible negotiations with Israel.
Unexpectedly, in the midst of this process, the Iraqi government published a statement by Saddam Hussein saying that a ''condition'' of security for Israel is necessary to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This unprecedented statement was followed by a Le Monde interview with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz, who confirmed that Iraq was ''not opposed to a peaceful settlement of the problem and therefore to negotiations involving Israel.''
These statements caught observers off-guard and left them uncertain of their serious political significance.
However, an underlying rationale for Iraq's actions surfaced recently when Tareq Aziz met with Secretary of State Shultz in Paris. There Aziz acknowledged Iraqi support for the Israel-Lebanon troop withdrawal agreement and, in an apparent quid pro quo, pressed for US action to end the Gulf war. As he told Le Monde, ''It is time the members of the Security Council adopt resolutions that are not merely wishful but have the power to force a return to peace (between Iraq and Iran).'' He concluded, ''Mr. Shultz greeted my suggestion in a positive way and I think the United States will take an initiative.''
Iraq's helpful position on the hard-won Lebanon agreement and its support of prospective negotiations with Israel - the substance of the Hussein-Arafat dialogue - represent a marked shift in Iraq's outlook. Specifically, they appear to be part of an effort to gain an effective US-sponsored diplomatic initiative to end the Gulf war.
Whether Iraq's efforts will bear fruit is a good question. The United States, because of its decision to remain neutral, has been relegated to a sideline view of a war which for nearly three years has threatened to envelop a region of unsurpassed geostrategic significance. Meanwhile the conservative clerics in Iran are more entrenched than ever, a sign that Iran's anti-US outlook will outlive Khomeini and continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps the rest of this decade, if not longer.
On the other hand, when the mullahs succeed Khomeini it is almost certain that one of their first foreign policy decisions will be to end the conflict with Iraq. The war has grown increasingly unpopular at home and Khomeini is clearly the only leader with sufficent stature to offset the repercussions of continuing to waste lives in that conflict. In other words, the US could do little to improve relations during Khomeini's reign anyway; and if it were to go ahead and pursue an end to the war, it would almost certainly not place itself at odds with the regime likely to follow.
Besides, an energetic US initiative on the Gulf war is an opportunity to strengthen credibility among important Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia outside the context of the Arab-Israeli morass. It could also change longer-term relations with Iraq from a primarily adversarial footing, important for a country which retains major regional significance.
Finally, in the face of the growing threat of Arab world radicalization, the US must act wherever it can to encourage moderate political and strategic approaches by Arab governments. If Iraq has embarked on what appears to be a significant, long-term trend in this direction, the US should do what it can to promote it.