Iran-US situation minus the distortions. Khomeini's regime is not on the ropes

Monitor editor in chief Earl Foell, occupied the past several months with other projects, today resumes his Tuesday column.

DONALD Regan made headlines when he testified that his White House colleagues were ``snookered'' by Iran. The public may be in danger of being accidentally snookered by headlines and TV zoom-ins on the Gulf struggle. What you see in those flashes is not necessarily what's happening. Uncle Sam and the Ayatollah may look beard to beard. But that's not the whole story.

For instance, it is widely assumed that the Reagan administration, swinging away from the McFarlane-North dalliance with Tehran, has now tilted toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Careful analysis challenges that idea.

Conventional wisdom holds that Iran's leaders have reacted to exposure of their arms dealing with ``Satan America'' and to American gunboats in the Gulf by embracing Moscow. That also is an overreading of events.

The Iran-contra hearings left many Americans feeling that Israel merely humored US officials in the arms-for-hostages deal. Or that at most some free-lance Israeli, Saudi, and Iranian arms dealers played a game for profit. That view overlooks the aims of the Israeli government for its vital arms industry.

Finally, some analysts have swung from amazement at Ronald Reagan's belief that Iran was losing the war to a feeling that things are indeed going badly for Tehran. In fact, Iran is not on the ropes. Let's look at these four areas of confusion in more detail:

1.A US tilt toward Baghdad.

The Reagan administration can justifiably tell Iraqi leaders it is making up for sending weapons to Iran. It is helping Iraq's friend, Kuwait, by reflagging and escorting Kuwait's tankers. It stands by Saudi Arabia in that kingdom's collision with Khomeini. But Washington's policy has also benefited Iran. And that has not escaped Iranian notice. By vigorously supporting freedom of navigation through Gulf waters, the US has made it harder for Iraq to resume attacks on Iranian oil exports by sea (although not on land). Baghdad will not hold off attacks on tankers for long, but Washington is pressing for a continued moratorium.

2.Iran's embrace of Moscow.

Much has been made of the trade agreement with the USSR announced last week in Tehran. It was obviously to the advantage of both parties to play up this agreement, which the Kremlin has sought for two years. But while the two sides talk about talking about trade, a reopened pipeline, and a new pipeline, Tehran still has not succumbed to Moscow's eight-year campaign to persuade Iran to reopen its gas pipeline supplying Soviet Armenia.

3.Israel merely obliged the US in the Iran-Contra deal.

Israel has a major arms industry, which employs some 10 percent of the Israeli work force. Iran was one of its major customers under the Shah. Ever since the Khomeini revolution, Israel has sought to regain that market somehow. Jerusalem's basic strategic concept is that its small territory is surrounded by a ring of hostile Arab states. Beyond them, Jerusalem has seen the possibility of creating a counterbalance using such non-Arab nations as Turkey, Ethiopia, and Iran. Working from this strategic mind-set, Israeli planners tend to think of the Iranian revolution as a temporary deviation. They continue to work at resuming the arms connection.

4.Iran on the ropes.

Since Iran's forces pushed closer to the Iraqi port of Basra, neither warfare nor diplomacy has gone well for Tehran. But, as already noted, there is at least a temporary cessation in Iraq's attacks on Iranian shipping. The rise in the price of OPEC oil after the firing of the Saudi oil minister, Sheikh Yamani, has helped Iran (as well as Iraq) to limp along on its war-shrunken economy. Forecasts that the losses of tens of thousands of young men in human wave attacks would undermine support for the regime have not been borne out. Some analysts (including this one) felt that at harvest time, in particular, the loss of young ``martyrs'' would be felt in the rural villages. Gary Sick, a Carter White House Iranian expert, set the record straight on this as on other subjects mentioned above. The population facts show why high casualties have not ended the Jacobin phase of this revolution. The highest casualty estimates for the war indicate perhaps 300,000 Iranian soldiers killed. But during this same time 11 million people have been born in Iran. That's almost as many new Iranians as the entire population of Iraq. Some 25 percent of the population is under 16. In short, it's difficult for the Tehran regime to occupy all its young people in the villages.

Much of what one sees emphasizes the irrational nature of the Khomeini revolution. Its street protests resemble the worst phases of the French Revolution or the Boxer Rebellion. But the leadership that makes rabble-rousing statements is often shrewd and practical. Its words are for home consumption. Its deeds are more the clever moves of one of Donald Regan's ``rug merchants.'' The task for the great powers and the UN remains clear: to persuade those shrewd, shrill leaders that their best interests lie in a stalemate and peace - declared or undeclared.

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