The debate over whether the United States should go to war against Iraq should not ignore how Iran would respond.
In the event of war, all kinds of reasons might appear to favor Iran's potential alliance with Iraq against the US. The Bush administration has accused Iran of "harboring" Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan and has included Iran in the "axis of evil." President Bush has denounced the "destructive policies" of the Iranian government, and both America and Israel have threatened Iran with possible preemptive military strikes against Iran's nascent nuclear facilities. Yet all kinds of other considerations militate against an Iranian coalition with Iraq:
Iran continues to perceive Iraq as the primary source of threat to its national security. In its eight-year war against Iran, Iraq rained Scud missiles on Iranian cities and used poison gas against Iran, inflicting at least a quarter of a million deaths. Since the war ended in 1988, there has been no peace treaty between them.
Like most other Muslim states and China, Russia, and European countries Iran opposes America going to war against Iraq. But that does not endear the Saddam Hussein regime to Iran. Ironically, the US today seeks "regime change" in Iraq, which is what Ayatollah Khomeini called for throughout the Iraq-Iran war. Then the US helped the Iraqi regime survive. The difference, of course, is important. Iraq had invaded Iran, but it has not threatened the US.
Surely, militant conservative factions would demand, as they did during the Gulf war, that Iran join the war against the US. If Iran joined forces with Iraq, it would be hard pressed to avoid a war with the US. But a weak economy and skyrocketing public demands for social and political reforms argue against a war. More important, in a poll taken in 2000, 55 percent of Iranians favored restoring relations with the US, but my own more recent observations tell me that figure is conservative.
Most likely, Iran would opt for neutrality as it did during the Gulf War when it earned the praise of former Secretary of State James Baker and former President Bush. The US may soon need Iran's cooperation if it goes to war with Iraq. Would it not be more prudent if between now and then the Bush administration could refrain from the kind of rhetoric that would further aggravate Iran's relations with the United States?
R.K. Ramazani is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.