NEW YORK — The Iran-Iraq War boils on with a new Iranian offensive. Now in its sixth year, the war has killed nearly 1 million people, forced more than 3 million persons from their homes, caused several hundred-billion dollars in property damage, jeopardized international shipping, undermined time-honored norms against the use of poison gas and periodically threatened to embroil other countries, including the United States, more directly in the fighting.
Yet this most destructive war of the decade relentlessly continues without any serious multilaterial effort to end it. Despite the staggering costs and serious dangers, the United States and the Soviet Union--as well as neighboring Middle East nations--believe that keeping the Iranians and Iraqis bogged down in battle will make them more manageable. As Henry A. Kissinger once explained, "the ultimate American interest in the war (is) that both should lose." The belligerents' neighbors are content to have these two aspirants for regional hegemony exhaust each other. To fend off a perceived threat from Khomeini-inspired Shia unrest in their own countries, nearby gulf states acquiesced in Iraq's initial attack on Iran and subsequently gave Baghdad about $1 billion each month to fight the war.
The United States and the Soviet Union, maneuvering to achieve their own narrow geopolitical goals, have fine-tuned and prolonged the war. The superpowers have sought to increase their influence in the region, to prevent either combatant from scoring a victory and, in Washington's case, to ensure a continued flow of oil.
Both superpowers consider Iran to be the prime "strategic prize" because of its location, natural resources and large market. But both are also vying for influence with Iraq. Washington has tilted toward Baghdad by acquiescing in Iraq's initial invasion, by sharing U.S. military intelligence and by giving economic assistance. Although Moscow has emphasized preserving its relationship with Baghdad in the face of Western efforts to loosen Soviet-Iraqi ties, it also has attempted--in vain--to improve its relationship with Tehran.
The security threat posed by war also has allowed Washington to expand its military ties to the other gulf states in ways unimaginable during peace. The fighting has encouraged Saudi Arabia to collaborate closely with U.S. intelligence activity. U.S. early warning planes are the centerpiece of a new regional air defense system. American military forces have reportedly received permission to use Saudi bases during crises. Washington already has access to bases in Oman, Bahrain and an island in the Arabian Sea.
Why do Iran and Iraq continue a war that fails to achieve any stated objectives and shatters both societies, devastates both economies? The border dispute that helped ignite the war has rapidly receded into the background. But rivalry in the region continues to fuel the conflict. Both regimes keep fighting because war focuses their nations' energies on an external enemy and silences the opposition. Both regimes have exploited ethnic, socioreligious and ideological differences to the point where they have become prisoners of their own rhetoric. Iran and Iraq are incapable of ending this war on their own.
The United States and the Soviet Union can and should help end the fighting because recent Middle East history demonstrates that militarization of the region will not secure for either superpower the influence or stability it seeks. Between 1950 and 1982, Washington sold $75-billion worth of weapons to the region but arms failed to keep the Shah of Iran in power or to maintain peace.
Yet a principled, broad peace initiative could help end the war and stabilize the region. Both superpowers are less interested in the war than in the political regimes of Baghdad and Tehran. U.S. diplomacy could gain Soviet support for a peace initiative if it abandoned efforts to exclude the Soviet Union diplomatically and to expand U.S. military power in the gulf area. The Soviet leadership has continually expressed interest in multilateral efforts to reduce regional tensions. Although allied with Baghdad, the Soviet Union has criticized Iraq for starting the war.
Each belligerent has been most receptive to peace initiatives when it felt weak. During the first 20 months of the war, Iran's only condition for peace was a return to the prewar status quo. Then, when Iranian troops advanced, so did Iranian demands. On the other hand, Iraq originally spurned a ceasefire. Then, when forced to retreat from Iranian territory, Baghdad on several occasions said it was ready to accept one.
Despite Iran's new offensive, neither side has much chance of winning the war. Now is the time for a multilateral effort at mediation, to be implemented as soon as the current offensive runs out of steam.