A DOMINANT aspect of the current debate about the Iraq-Iran war is the strategic implications of the threat the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regime poses to the Gulf region, the Middle East, and the world. Iraq was the first country to feel, directly and violently, the impact of the Khomeini doctrine, which harnesses the use of force, subversion, and terrorism to the aim of exporting a regressive ideology and spreading its influence.
Iran, much larger and more populous than Iraq, began publicly calling for the overthrow of Iraq's political order and social system. It incited and supported waves of terrorist activities which resulted in hundreds of casualties among civilians and officials. But Iraq could not remain passive in the face of such open provocation. It did not want to be engulfed by the Iranian chaos. When it preemptively sent its troops into Iran in September 1980, Iraq was reacting to an overt Iranian threat to its security.
At the start of the war, few realized the scope of the Khomeini danger. Analysts and observers misunderstood, and therefore underestimated, the aims of the new regime in Tehran, believing that, once the revolutionary fervor was spent, Iran would turn to internal problems and recede as a threat to its neighbors. Ayatollah Khomeini's denunciations of governments of neighboring states and his open calls for revolts throughout the region were considered so much rhetoric. But as the war wore on, it became increasingly clear that the Tehran regime was seeking major changes in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East.
After seven years of war, it has also become obvious that Iraq is better off, despite its sacrifices, than if it had permitted the Khomeini regime to commit aggression with impunity. It chose to defend itself and to safeguard its area even while many regional and global powers were being humiliated and provoked by the Khomeini regime. Iran quickly realized that it could exploit its strategic location to defy the international community so long as it was being met with appeasement rather than punishment.
The result was that Khomeini's Iran set a record for arrogance, irresponsibility, violence, and subversion. Events have also proved Iranian interference in the internal affairs of many countries, among them Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania, France, Britain, and Turkey, to say nothing of the Arab states of the Gulf, especially Kuwait.
This tally sheet of mayhem raises serious questions about appeasement policies toward Iran, pursued for most of the past seven years and justified on the basis of its strategic location and the importance of its resources. This view ignored the fact that, regardless of its importance, Iran could not outweigh the Gulf's Arab states collectively, which it is threatening directly, and certainly not the rest of the Arab world, which is also at risk.
Those who are anxious about the future of Iran should realize that one of the worst dangers, to both Iran itself and to its neighbors, is the continuation of Khomeini's policies
A misconception about Iran is that the Iranian people generally approve of Khomeini's designs. The fact is that Iranians by and large are peaceful, reasonable, and cooperative. Tens of thousands of them have been executed, many on mere suspicion of anti-regime activity. Thousands more languish in jail. Khomeini has wasted the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Iranians in his fanatical war against Iraq, a conflict he could not win against a much smaller country. Much of the country's once-flourishing economy has either been destroyed or disrupted.
But the majority in Iran is silent, because it lacks the means to express its views or voice its protests. Those who see Khomeini as a popular figure are either misreading the temper of the Iranian people or belittling their capacity to rise against oppression, as they did against the late Shah. Moreover, there are abundant indications that Iranians desire peace and an end to the war, particularly after Iraq made clear that it had no territorial designs on Iran and that it sought an honorable settlement of the conflict, under which there would be no victor or vanquished.
In fact, Iraq is seriously concerned about the fate of Iran, especially in the post-Khomeini period. Iraq has no desire to see Iran, its largest neighbor, divided, fragmented, or ideologically influenced by a foreign power. At the same time, Iraq is determined to stand against an expansionist and hegemonic Iran seeking to dominate its neighbors. Only a peaceful, unified, and stable Iran can help safeguard the security of the region and contribute constructively to its economic, social, and political development.
But none of this will come about while the war goes on and the Tehran regime is permitted to follow the path to regional chaos.
It has taken a long time and a full-scale, costly conflict for the realization to sink in that Khomeini and his revolution represent the greatest danger to the stability of the Middle East in a generation. Suddenly, fears are being expressed about the security of the Gulf, the freedom of navigation in its waters, and the flow of its oil to world markets.
But the threat to the region will not end until real pressure is brought to bear on the Khomeini regime to end the widening war, to stop interfering in the affairs of its neighbors, to cease its campaign of international terrorism, and to take on the responsibilities required of Iran as a major state in the are. What is needed, in other words, is an Iranian government that truly represents the people of Iran and that cares about their welfare and the security and stability of the region as a whole.
The Khomeini regime by its nature does not fill that need.
Nizar Hamdoon is Iraqi ambassador to the United States.