A window of opportunity may have opened for ending hostilities between Iran and Iraq because of the emergence of a new balance of power between the two belligerents.
Iraq's position has been strengthened by Western credits and financial assistance from the Gulf Arab states, large inflows of arms and military advisers, and the resilience of its society and military.
Iran's position has deteriorated severely. Economically, large discounts that Iran gives to oil customers and reductions in oil exports have led to reduced earnings. Militarily, Iran has been weakened by drying-up sources of arms supply , largely because of United States and Soviet pressure on their respective allies. Food shortages, weather, disease, and the cancellation of all leaves since last March have sapped Iranian military forces of morale and left them incapable of effective combat. This is why Iran has not launched the long-awaited massive offensive. Iraq's use of chemical weapons has also eroded Iran's edge based on its larger manpower pool.
The strong international and regional response to Iran's threats to the security of Persian Gulf shipping has further reduced its options. Especially important have been US determination to defend Saudi Arabia, the Soviets' sale of arms to Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia's willingness to take Iran on militarily. There is also growing public dissatisfaction in Iran with the war, creating serious fears among many Iranian leaders that continued conflict will undermine the stability of the Khomeini regime.
As a result, there have been some efforts in Iran to move toward ending the war, including a long letter to Ayatollah Khomeini from his heir apparent, Ayatollah Montazeri, arguing for this course. Iran has also begun diplomatic efforts to ease fears about its objectives. These have included visits by Iranian foreign military officials to Moscow and the Gulf countries. With discreet Syrian mediation, there have even been efforts to ease tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iranian authorities went out of their way to persuade the visiting West German foreign minister that Iran is willing to improve relations with the West. Majlis Speaker, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani has even said that all doors to better relations with France are not closed.
Of course, not everyone in Iran agrees with these efforts. Radical elements are concerned about the conservative attitude of the moderates on domestic issues and their pragmatic approach to foreign policy. There is also the problem of Khomeini himself and what he ultimately may decide. But even he will have to be more concerned about protecting his Islamic revolution rather than pursuing a war that could end his rule.
Despite its problems, however, Iran has not yet reached a point where Iraq could pursue a strategy of attrition in the hope of achieving some of the objectives it failed to gain through vigorous offensives. Nevertheless, Iraq's diplomatic position has hardened. In the last few months, President Saddam Hussein has said in interviews with Arab newspapers that peace with Iran is conditional on Iran's returning three Persian Gulf islands to the United Arab Emirates. Nor has Iraq been receptive to the peace proposals made by Algeria and the Islamic Conference, based on the Algiers Agreement of 1975.
Thus the window of opportunity may soon close. As a result, it is incumbent on both regional states and the West to reexamine the situation and their policies in light of new developments.
The threat of Iraq's collapse has now been replaced by the danger of instability in Iran. Despite the unsavory nature of the Khomeini regime, this danger should not be treated lightly, since the regime is unlikely to be replaced peacefully by a moderate, pro-Western secular government. Instability in Iran could easily turn into chaos and even civil war. The likely outcome would be either a pro-Soviet leftist regime or Iran's disintegration. Neither would serve Western interests, although the latter would appeal to Iraq.
Any policy of undue pressure on Iran would be counterproductive. Similarly, support for Iraq should be carefully calibrated and linked to its attitude on peace. The other Gulf countries should continue their defense efforts and should respond strongly to any Iranian challenge. But they should also consider Iranian overtures.
For their part, Western countries should voice their support for maintaining the territorial integrity of all regional states and their opposition to major shifts in the regional balance of power. The French defense minister recently made an oblique reference to this point by saying that France does not favor disruption of the traditional Arab-Persian equilibrium.
In sum, new conditions have emerged in the Persian Gulf that offer some chance of peace. But it may be lost if all concerned continue to act on old premises.