United Nations efforts to end the Iran-Iraq war have received a much-needed boost with the news that UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar will likely travel to the Persian Gulf on a personal peace mission. The trip, scheduled to begin next week, may well mean postponement of a potentially divisive debate in the UN Security Council over a possible embargo of arms shipments to Iran.
The United States has urged the Security Council to approve such an embargo if Tehran does not agree to a cease-fire. Other Security Council nations, including some inner-circle permanent members such as the Soviet Union, have indicated they do not support such a sanction.
``The five permanent members are the key players here,'' says a UN official.
The Security Council's permanent members are the US, Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. There are 10 additional spots on the council which rotate among other UN nations.
The latest UN peace process for the Persian Gulf began in earnest in July, when the Security Council approved a plan calling for an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of belligerent nations behind internationally recognized borders. Iraq indicated it would accept the plan. Iran, while not rejecting it outright, did not accept it and appeared to be talking to stall for time.
US officials, fed up with the waffling, said earlier this week that if Iran did not come around by today, it would ask the Security Council to consider additional measures - namely, an arms embargo. But there are political factors making it unlikely that Security Council members would pass an embargo.
The USSR has said the time is not right for such a move; France is one of Iraq's largest arms suppliers and is worried that Iraq would be included in the ban; and China is selling more than $1 billion worth of fighter jets and other weapons to Iran.
Even if the arms embargo were passed it might not stick. China continues to assert publicly that it doesn't sell arms to Tehran - a ``flatly ridiculous'' statement, according to a former administration official who worked on stemming the flow of weapons to Iran.
The effect of an embargo ``would depend on how seriously everybody takes it,'' says this official. Though Iran has successfully acquired large amounts of war material through surreptitious means, it still relies on quasi-official purchases from nations such as Portugal for crucial items, and thus could be hurt by a determined sanctions effort.
The position of Vernon Walters, the US ambassador to the UN, and other US officials is that an arms embargo at the very least would make Iran work harder and pay more for the weapons it needs. And analysts say it appears Iran is indeed worried about diplomatic isolation - one reason why they invited the UN Secretary General for a visit.
This invitation was extended early this week. The accompanying message once again did not reject the UN peace plan, but did not accept it, either, say informed sources. The permanent members of the Security Council approved P'erez de Cu'ellar's acceptance of the invitation - if Iran in turn accepts certain conditions.
What happens next depends on Iran's intentions, analysts say. One widespread view is that the Iranians, worried about efforts to isolate them, are simply stalling.
But some say Iran could still be genuinely interested in becoming a party to the UN peace process. ``I don't believe this is just a tactical ploy,'' says R.K. Ramazani, a University of Virginia history professor and author of a book on Iran.
Professor Ramazani says there are certain aspects of the UN peace plan which Iran is interested in seeing emphasized. One provision, he points out, calls for an international body to investigate which nation is responsible for the Persian Gulf conflict.
The war began when Iraqi forces struck into Iran - a fact Iran feels the world has forgotten, according to Ramazani. ``Iran has a longstanding grudge against the UN for the Security Council's failure to condemn Iraq for its invasion.''