The tempo of the Iran-Iraq war has again picked up. But the latest flare-up may not fizzle out as did earlier rounds of battle. The stakes - for the combatants, their neighbors, and the West - are enormous. Yet why is the war escalating now?
Lately, pressure has been mounting on Iran to achieve a breakthrough in the war, lest time run out. Iran's strategy of attrition has failed and, thanks to Arab generosity and Western credits, Iraq has survived. In fact, if Iraq can hold on until the end of this year, its economic situation will improve as its new oil pipelines through Saudi Arabia become operational. Militarily, as well, Iraq is in a better position, given recent delivery of weapons and improvement in the performance of its armed forces.
In addition, the United States and British positions have shifted in Iraq's favor.
Iran is still economically solvent, but it faces pressures because of lack of military hardware. These pressures could be intensified through efforts by the US and some European countries to limit trade with Iran. Similarly, in Iran the number of war casualties has undermined popular enthusiasm and endurance.
So far neither belligerent has accomplished a major military feat. But dangers persist of an Iranian advance or an Iraqi escalation.
Thus it is imperative to ponder the possible outcome of such events, the implications for regional politics and Western interests, and realistic options for the West. An Iranian victory would obviously have negative consequences for the whole region. But the degree of their seriousness would depend in part on whether the present Iraqi regime were replaced by an Islamic government.
This outcome is not very likely. Unlike Iran, Iraq has well-established and well-organized centers of power, such as the Baath Socialist Party, and Iraq's armed forces have a long history of involvement in domestic politics. In addition, Iraq's Shia clergy are not as well organized and as politicized as were those of Iran. It is also unlikely that Syria would easily allow the establishment of a religious government in Iraq that could threaten the secular nature of Syria's own regime. Nor would it be happy with an Iraqi government closely linked to Iran - a development that would dramatically increase the latter's presence and influence in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, a successor regime in Iraq would likely be more friendly to Iran and Syria and thus would adversely affect the position of moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt. If Iran prevails militarily, the situation of the Gulf countries would deteriorate further. Some Gulf countries, like Bahrain and Kuwait, would be more vulnerable to Iranian threats. Mindful of the US factor, it is unlikely Iran would take on Saudi Arabia. Given its relatively good relations with Iran, the United Arab Emirates would not be seriously threatened.
Nevertheless, the Gulf countries will come under strong pressure to accommodate Iran, thus ceasing to be moderating forces in the Middle East. They might also be forced to curtail their US links.
These developments would undermine Western (especially US) interests. Western countries should do all they can to bolster Iraq to prevent an Iranian victory. Moderate Arabs should do the same, through financial assistance and dispatch of military and other advisers. Security of other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain and Kuwait, should be strengthened. Nearby Western naval presence should be brought up to an adequate level.
Ultimately, however, the war's fate will depend on the willingness of the Iraqis to fight and on their ability to resist Iranian offensives. But if the situation were to deteriorate gravely, should the West intervene directly in favor of Iraq by attacking Iran? For example, should it encourage Iraq to take actions that would provoke Iran to try closing the Strait of Hormuz - thus justifying a Western punitive action against Iran? This would be a highly dangerous course. A Western punitive action against Iran's air and naval forces might not stop the advance of the Iranian Army, especially if Iraq's will to resist collapsed. On the contrary, this step could lead to suicidal Iranian attacks on the oil installations of other Gulf countries and even on Western naval targets.
A massive attack by the West would jeopardize its relations with Iran for generations, and would negatively affect Western relations with the Islamic world.
In addition, intervening in Iran could cause the West to become mired in a long conflict in an unfriendly land.
Furthermore, despite current unhappiness with Iran, under proper conditions the Soviet Union would be delighted to assist Iran and establish its influence there.
The only viable options for the West are to help Iraq, bolster the Gulf countries, and be prepared to defend the sea lanes. But the West should not panic over Iranian military advances and attempt a preemptive attack on Iran.
Even if, in the last resort, it is forced to attack Iran, the West should reaffirm its commitment to Iran's territorial integrity, while warning the Soviets to keep their hands off.