Holding off Iran

The current military stalemate in the Iran-Iraq war presents the world's nations with a test of patience. Countries, primarily European or Arab, which have reasonably good relationships with one side or the other should keep a close watch on the situation, to be ready when the time is right to offer help in settling the four-year-old conflict.

It would be premature to make such an effort at this time, however. Much ferment now exists in Iran over whether the war should be continued: The ferment should be allowed to run its course.

Until both sides are willing to negotiate, mediation efforts would be highly unlikely to succeed. Over the past four years several combinations of nations have vainly tried to coax a settlement, but have failed because one party or the other did not wish an end to the fighting at that time.

There is no diplomatic role for the United States to play now. Any American diplomatic move would likely result in a strong negative reaction in Iran, and might well strengthen Iranian resolve to continue the war.

One of the factors that has produced the stalemate has been a quiet effort by both the US and the Soviet Union to favor Iraq, largely in response to an earlier perception that Iraq was likely to lose, and in an effort to produce a stalemate. Although officially neutral, the US has led a successful international endeavor to cut off the supply of arms and munitions to Iran, which now is feeling the effects. Washington has also provided commodity credits to Iraq.

For its part the Soviet Union, along with France, has provided Iraq with sufficient weapons to the point that Baghdad now has substantial superiority in military hardware.

As a result Iran is short of arms and munitions and is apparently unable to launch its long-threatened major ground offensive, as several sources have noted - a point made most recently in a staff report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In addition, Iran's military forces are believed to have low morale, and the country's economy has been buffeted by declining oil revenues.

Western fears have largely subsided that Iran would win outright, and subsequently spread Islamic fundamentalism to several areas of the Arab world. Thus the US and Western favoritism toward Iraq is likely to ebb: Washington does not want a clear Iraqi victory, since it could result in the disintegration of Iran, very possibly followed by a Soviet-dominated government.

Since the end of World War II it has been US policy to keep Iran from disintegrating, out of concern that the Soviet Union, its northern neighbor, would take over part or all of Iran and thus gain entry both to the oil fields of the Middle East and to the warm-water Gulf.

Some kind of negotiated settlement without defeat for either side is in the interest of the US and other Western nations. Achieving it will require patience from observer nations and ultimate recognition by both combatants that settlement is preferable to prolongation of the war.

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