Gulf war: `final phase'?

RECENT military victories have given Iran a certain edge in the Iran-Iraq war, which moves into its seventh year later this month. Tehran, which has long had the advantage in manpower, says its ``final'' offensive will come soon. But Iraq, with its edge in sophisticated arms and air power, is widely expected to survive the attack. Both Moscow and Washington want to see the war end soon. The Soviet Union, ever eager to befriend the Arab world, has been Iraq's major arms supplier. The United States, technically neutral on the war, sells arms to neither side but has been trying to persuade its friends to stop selling weapons to Iran. The US rationale: Iran's persistent refusal to talk peace. The superpowers would probably prefer that neither authoritarian regime win. One key concern: keeping oil flowing freely out of the Persian Gulf. Some 60 oil tankers have been damaged or sunk so far in the war.

It has been an exceedingly costly war, taking hundreds of thousands of lives and requiring an investment by each side of several billion dollars a year. Both sides are experiencing some internal political dissent and severe economic problems.

Yet for all the practical reasons that the war should end soon, it may not. Iran's Khomeini regime, which has branded Iraq the aggressor for its invasion of Iran's Khuzestan Province in 1980, sees itself in a holy war that will end only when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government is toppled. Tehran also wants international condemnation of Iraq as a lawbreaker for starting the war and reparations of $50 billion or better for the damages inflicted.

To the US, which viewed the taking of its own diplomats by Tehran in 1979 for 444 days as an egregious violation of international law, Iran's current huffing over infractions of its territorial integrity seems belated recognition of the importance of law. But a nation such as the US which so prides itself on standing for principle on legal and moral issues could afford to concede rather than stay silent on the legal issue of who started the war. Many Iranians, after all, may believe Tehran's propaganda line that the US actually had a role in instigating Iraq's initial attack on Iran. Despite Washington's criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons in the conflict, many Iranians see an Iraqi tilt to US neutrality.

For a mix of understandable reasons, the US finds it hard to like the Khomeini regime. The feeling is mutual. But whatever the outcome of the war, both Iran and Islamic fundamentalism are likely to be around for a long time to come. The US would do well to try harder to understand Islamic goals and the reason for their appeal. Saudi Arabia, a firm friend of the US, is, after all, one of the most fundamentalist Islamic nations in the region. The Ayatollah may be anti-communist, but Syria has proved it is not necessary to be communist to become a Moscow ally. Tehran, which will soon resume natural gas deliveries to Moscow, has also recently been improving its relations with Western Europe.

It is also well to remember that not everyone in Iran agrees with Khomeini's methods and goals. There has been little apparent effort in Washington to distinguish between the regime and the people at large. It is often easier to personalize blame, pointing at the Qaddafis and the Khomeinis, than to explore why such leaders have gathered a following and to think ahead to what may succeed them.

A slight shift in what the US is saying may not color the outcome of the war at all. It is tempting to dismiss the situation as beyond the hope of rational powers to influence. But a shift by the US away from its longtime silence on the legal issue just might make the Khomeini regime, for all its faults, somewhat more open to the idea of a cease-fire and peace talks. It is worth a try.

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