Can `New Iran' Be Honest Gulf Broker?

SINCE Iraq first invaded Kuwait, Iran has resolutely supported the international community's determination to bring about an Iraqi withdrawal. Yet the exodus of Iraqi warplanes to Iran has once again rekindled Western media speculation about sinister Iranian collusion with Iraq. This cacophony of crude conspiracy theories neglects to note that Iran has no interest whatever in supporting Saddam Hussein. Indeed, Iran's objectives in the present crisis converge remarkably well with those of the international community. Prior to allied bombardments of Iraq, Iran's support for the international sanctions against Iraq had been unflinching. Limited smuggling across Iran's long border with Iraq may have occurred, but it was hardly condoned. Iran also loudly warned against Western notions of compromising any part of Kuwait.

Iran has declared itself neutral in the present clashes between Iraq and US-led forces, deeming it a fight between ``two evils.'' Yet Iran's President Rafsanjani has repeatedly denounced calls for aid to Iraq as tantamount to ``suicide.'' Moreover, at a recent Iranian foreign ministry conference, several objectives emerged that are quite compatible with stated allied objectives: First, no one in Iran wants to see a cease fire in which Iraq is left still holding any part of Kuwait. Second, all ``alien forces''' must withdraw quickly from the region. Third, Iran has repeatedly stressed the need to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. Fourth, Iran's key leaders practically reject linkage between the present Gulf crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian mess, a stand that stiffened after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel.

Iran's nightmare scenario envisions a protracted war that might lead either to a collapse of international resolve against Iraq, destabilizing internal convulsions in Muslim countries, or worse, to a disintegration of Iraq. Iran understandably worries that if the Iraqi army crumbles, the resulting vacuum might draw Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey and Iran itself, into Iraq in order to ``defend their interests.'' Worse still, ``alien'' forces might also feel compelled to stay and maintain order - a scenario equally distasteful to most Western leaders.

As for the Iraqi planes in Iran - Iran insists these planes are out of action for the war's duration. Actions to the contrary will risk derailing Iran's pursuit of better relations with its Gulf neighbors and its quest for European reconstruction cooperation.

Western willingness to believe Saddam's claim of aid from his Iranian ``Muslim brothers'' - despite Iran's denials - is disconcerting.

Amidst the present crisis, the Iranian leadership has been seeking a path toward regional security arrangements of, by, and for the eight Gulf states themselves. Again, this very principle was enunciated at the United Nations by President Bush last Oct. 1. Many details need to be negotiated. Yet the key point stands: Iran's aims are in line with those in the international community.

A danger persists that the West will continue to view Iran through the prism of bitter memories of Iran's earlier revolutionary days. One network trotted out 11-year-old film clips of the diplomatic hostage crisis as backdrop on whether Iran's present word could be trusted.

Focusing only on the past blinds us to recent developments in Iran, especially under the strengthened hand of President Rafsanjani. A similar problem emerges when journalists rely solely on varied exile ``sources,'' who often have their own reasons for disingenuously portraying Iran in a dour light.

Finally, we must learn to better gage the great diversity of voices within Iran. To be sure, various Iranian figures may continue to call for a violent joining of Iraq's war against American forces in Saudi Arabia. Such voices may be an indicator of potential fury, yet they do not represent actual Iranian policy any more than Senator Mark Hatfield's pacifism represents US policy.

Official Iran asserts that it will remain ``positively neutral'' in the present hostilities. We rationally can expect its word to be credible. The test will be in actions.

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