THE surprise Iraqi invasion of Kuwait should make the Bush administration belatedly realize that it has been ignoring the other major political and military power in the Persian Gulf region: Iran. Saddam Hussein, perhaps as a result of the American ``tilt'' toward Iraq during the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war, believed he has a free hand to fill the power vacuum in the region.
If Washington had had the courage last year to put behind it the bitterness over the long imprisonment of American hostages held in Lebanon, a formal, if not friendly, accommodation could have been made with Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
It is important to remember that Washington's hands are not exactly clean. American intelligence support of Iraq and the one-sided policy of protecting Kuwaiti oil tankers but not other neutral ships certainly did much to help the Iraqi war effort. In addition, the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner by the USS Vincennes resulted in the death of 290 innocent passengers, most of them Iranian. Finally, while 37 lives were lost on the USS Stark because of an Iraqi air strike, no Americans were killed through Iranian military action.
The deteriorated relationship with Iran can still be turned around if President Bush moves to take advantage of the good will generated by the spontaneous outpouring of American aid in June, after the tragic earthquake in the Caspian region of Iran.
There is no doubt that Mr. Rafsanjani's hand has been strengthened in his efforts to resume friendly ties with the United States. Iran, with of its size, oil reserves, and large population, always will play a dominant role in Persian Gulf affairs. The sooner Washington takes steps to protect American long-range strategic and economic interests by resuming normal relations with Teheran the better.
An irony in the callous treatment by Iraq of an Arab brother is Teheran's quiet wooing of Gulf Arab nations, including Kuwait, ever since the Iran-Iraq cease-fire. While Iranian relations with Oman and Bahrain always have been close, even during the war, Rafsanjani has moved to placate all of the Gulf Cooperation Council states.
A few months ago he sent his foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, to Kuwait. This was the first diplomatic visit by an Iranian official since Teheran's 1979 revolution. A Kuwaiti minister commented during the visit that Iran and Kuwait now are working to foster trust and cooperation. Rafsanjani then sent his foreign minister to Cairo with a message of thanks for medical supplies sent to Iran during the earthquake. A Cairo newspaper reported that the two countries are considering restoring diplomatic ties broken in 1979 when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Contrary to reports in the American press that Iran had not thanked its arch-enemy, Iraq, for medical aid sent during the earthquake, a Baghdad newspaper reported that Rafsanjani had sent a personal message directly to Saddam Hussein thanking him for his assistance and expressions of sympathy. The Iranian leader's message followed recent unprecedented letters between the two leaders centered on Saddam's proposal for a summit meeting to discuss a final settlement of the Iran-Iraq war.
Unreported in the American press at the time, President Rafsanjani made an important speech last November to an international conference in Teheran in which he categorically ruled out any role for Iran as a guardian of the Persian Gulf. He proposed to the Arab states across the Gulf that a new order be established for regional peace and security. He said: ``The policy approach we recommend for governing the region is one which requires countries to cooperate and help solve each other's problems in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual understanding.''
One can assume that Kuwait and the other Gulf Arab states are contrasting Rafsanjani's attitude with that of the Iraqi president.
President Bush should applaud Teheran's efforts to foster friendly relations with the Arab world. It is in the best interest of the US that the present Iranian regime publicly state that it wishes to live in peace with its Arab neighbors.
The US should resume normal relations with Iran for a number of vital national security reasons. A primary consideration of American policy in the Persian Gulf has long been the prevention of Soviet penetration into the region. Ever since the signing of an Iranian-Soviet economic accord by Rafsanjani shortly after he came to power, the Soviets have been diligently promoting closer economic and political relations. The longer Washington waits to resume diplomatic ties, the more time the Soviets will have to consolidate their position.
Another important factor is the increasing need for Persian Gulf oil to feed American industry. The US soon will be importing 8 million barrels of oil per day, more than half its consumption. In the event of any disruption of oil shipments from Gulf Arab states, the ability to turn to Iran for needed supplies could become essential.
Since the Persian Gulf area seems to be in for a period of turmoil, the Bush administration should move now to resume traditionally friendly ties with Iran, one of the key players on the Middle Eastern stage.