Can One US Fence Hold Two Foes?

US effort to contain Iraq and Iran draws fire amid new tensions with Baghdad.

Two years after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, President Clinton gave his blessing to a strategy designed to ensure access by industrialized powers to the world's largest oil reserves.

The plan: combine American muscle with sanctions and international solidarity to keep both Iraq and Iran - which the US perceived as the biggest threats to stability in the region - weak and isolated. As autocratic rivals and advocates of anti-Western extremism, they would be walled off until their behavior changed.

Now, as yet another showdown with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatens to draw the United States into its eighth military confrontation with Iraq in six years, Mr. Clinton's "dual containment" strategy is coming under scrutiny amid calls for an overhaul.

Administration officials say they are sticking by the policy, insisting it has preserved Gulf stability and safeguarded the flow of 62 percent of the world's petroleum supplies. "We are quite comfortable with dual containment," asserts a senior official.

But critics argue that the policy treats two different problems in the same inflexible way, lacks international support, costs billions of scarce defense dollars, and exposes US troops in the region to terrorism. Even some Defense Department analysts appear concerned that the policy has become difficult to sustain.

"It is not clear that a stringent containment policy can be maintained over time," warns the Strategic Assessment 1997, a review of US security challenges by the Pentagon's National Defense University.

Administration officials and their supporters argue there are no better options for dealing with two of the gravest threats to US security and international order.

Despite differences with the European allies, Russia, and China, US officials say dual containment has kept Saddam "in a box," unable to rebuild his army or exert his influence over parts of Iraq covered by two United Nations-decreed no-fly zones that are mainly enforced by American aircraft.

Similarly, they contend, the ambitions of Iran's Islamic rulers have been constrained. With 20,000 US naval, air, and ground forces deployed in the region, they cannot threaten international shipping or the region's smaller pro-West Arab oil kingdoms. The allies are also cooperating in thwarting alleged Iranian-backed terrorism, they say.

Urging separate policies for each

Critics, however, contend that the policy lacks balance and cannot succeed because international support for isolating Iran economically is seriously flagging. With Saddam the greater threat, the US should begin exploring ways of opening a dialogue with Iran, they say. That would give the US greater leverage in winning allied backing for ousting the Iraqi dictator, they say.

"To lump them together brings no clarity, but only confusion to policy," says Graham Fuller, a former senior CIA official who is now an analyst at the RAND Corp., an influential think tank. "We end up trying to corral reluctant allies, both European and Middle Eastern, into a common position that they are unwilling to accept and as a result, it weakens us."

Saddam's latest challenge - an order expelling American members of UN teams hunting for his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons - has highlighted US problems in maintaining international support for its policy despite repeated Iraqi breaches of the Gulf War cease-fire.

Lured by the prospect of future business deals, France, Russia, China and other states oppose the use of force to compel Saddam to rescind his expulsion order. The approach is in line with their calls for easing UN sanctions that have restricted Iraq's oil sales, devastating its economy.

With only Britain to count on, the US has had no choice but to join UN efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution, asking the UN Security Council to slap "punitive measures" on Iraq, including a travel ban on Iraqi officials. Though they had earlier opposed such steps, France and Russia now appear to support them following the failure last week of a UN effort to win a reversal of Saddam's expulsion decision.

But such measures have scant chance of persuading Saddam to back down. With its prestige at stake, the US may still be forced to take threatened unilateral military action.

"We would be prepared, should it be necessary, to use whatever resources we have available in order to bring about a resolution of this," Defense Secretary William Cohen said Nov. 11, the day after he canceled a 12-day trip to Asia in case the US opts for military action.

Such action could seriously harm ties with other major powers and inflame anti-American passions in the Arab world, further jeopardizing the already stalled Mideast peace process. And even supporters of dual containment concede that there is no guarantee that military action would lead to Saddam's demise.

The problem is that there are few ways to get rid of Saddam, says Michael Eisenstat of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's a policy based on a hope and a prayer."

While the focus has been on Iraq, developments in Iran, including the election last summer of a moderate cleric, Mohammed Khatami, as president, have also raised questions about the future of dual containment.

While Iraq boils, Iran changes

Iran has achieved some success in mending fences with neighbors, including NATO member Turkey, and is expanding its trade ties, seriously undermining international support for the administration's strategy.

The most recent blow to the US came in October, when Iran signed a $2 billion natural-gas deal with a French-led consortium, the biggest foreign contract it has landed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The US, which bans American firms from doing business with Iran, failed to block the deal and is now mulling over sanctions against the consortium members, a move that could trigger a trade war with the European Community.

On the military front, the Islamic regime has been buying Russian and Chinese conventional weapons. It has also been allegedly developing, with Russian and Chinese help, weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to loft them as far as Israel.

Critics agree with the administration that there is little chance at present to lower tensions with Iran. Embroiled in a power struggle with radical Islamic rivals, Mr. Khatami cannot even explore the possibility of better relations, they say.

Instead, critics advocate a two-track approach. Politically, the US should remain open for a dialogue, especially on curbing Iran's alleged weapons of mass destruction program. The ground for talks, meanwhile, could be prepared by allowing trade between Iran and US and European firms, they argue.

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