THE Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, seems to have returned from his trip to Tehran and Baghdad empty-handed. In Tehran, he did not win Iran's unconditional acceptance of the United Nations Security Council resolution as it is now structured. In Baghdad, he was urged by the Iraqis to proceed to impose sanctions against Iran. Yet it would be a mistake to consider the Secretary-General's mission a total flop and to move speedily to the next action, namely, imposing an arms embargo and other sanctions on Iran.
In fact some encouraging points have emerged from the Secretary-General's trip. These are the following:
Iran is prepared to accept a cease-fire and engage in peace negotiations, provided an impartial committee set up by the UN declares Iraq as the aggressor.
There is a greater unity of view among the top Iranian leadership on this point than there has been before. The UN secretary has said that in his meetings with Iran's President, foreign minister, and the influential speaker of parliament, they all repeated the same position. This is quite important, since one of the reasons often cited for Iran's inability, or unwillingness, to accept a negotiated peace has been sharp differences of opinion among its leadership.
Iran, according to the Secretary-General, is also receptive to the idea of an informal truce.
Yet the tendency in the West has been to interpret this Iranian flexibility as a smoke screen, a cynical tactic to bring about the withdrawal of the US Navy from the Persian Gulf.
This may be so. But there is also the danger that, by always suspecting the Iranians and attributing malicious motives to them, the international community may lose another chance to end the Iran-Iraq conflict.
The sticking point seems to be Iran's demand that Iraq be identified as the aggressor. But is this such an unreasonable demand?
Despite all Iraqi claims to the contrary, it is commonly agreed that Iraq's massive invasion of Iran caused the war. Much has been made of Iran's provocations and meddling in Iraq's internal affairs as a reason for the war. But Iraq is not the innocent victim that it has tried to portray itself, and Western opinion seems to have bought this without questioning.
On the contrary, Iraq has done a great deal of interfering in Iran's internal affairs. Even during the premiership of Mehdi Bazargan in early 1979, Saddam Hussein demanded that the new regime, in order to show its goodwill toward the Arabs, should renounce the Algiers Agreement of 1975 that defined the Iran-Iraq border, return three disputed islands in the Persian Gulf to Arab sovereignty, and grant autonomy to Iran's Khuzestan Province.
In addition, Iraq, which has sponsored a so-called Front for the Liberation of Ahwaz (the capital of Khuzestan) for 15 years, began sending arms and agitators to that province. Iraq also sponsored and financed every conceivable opposition group seeking the overthrow of the Islamic regime. And it was the Iraqi divisions that moved into Iran.
The West fears that if Iraq were to be identified as the aggressor, then Iran would also ask for the punishment of the aggressor and demand war reparations.
But there are ways of negotiating a comprehensive deal that, while granting Iran's principal demand, will prevent it from escalating its demands.
The real problem is the West's unwillingness to grant Iran any moral victory. This is quite understandable. But the West should also ask itself whether it should reward aggression. Doing so would erode the West's moral authority and that of any punitive measure it may want to impose on Iran.
More important, the West should ask what would safeguard its interests best - seizing the opportunity and at the very least testing Iran's sincerity to make peace, or persisting with the current posture and thus move in an uncertain direction.
No doubt a peace that maintained the unity of both Iran and Iraq, and reduced tensions in the Persian Gulf, and prevented the Soviet Union from extending its influence in Iran and the Persian Gulf, would best serve Western interests.
Iraq is doing everything it can to provoke a confrontation between Iran and the West. The question is whether the West should let itself be manipulated by Iraq. In sum, the West has two choices: to accept a reasonable peace settlement that would safeguard its basic interests and would also be acceptable to Iran, or to pursue a policy which, in the final analysis, amounts to nothing more than teaching Iran a lesson. The latter may be emotionally satisfying, but it is also fraught with many dangers for Western interests in the region.