Mideast, Not Managua, Is Hotter Spot : Iranian Gains, Egyptian Instability Find U.S. Unprepared

March 18, 1986|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is the director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown

On Sunday evening President Reagan spoke to the nation about Nicaragua. He is concerned about conflict, political instability, threats to U.S. interests and possible gains for the Soviet Union.

The issues are right, but the region is wrong. What is happening in Central America cannot compare to the risks that the United States now faces in the Middle East.

In the Persian Gulf area, Iran has achieved its best military position in more than five years of war with Iraq. Morale in the Iraqi military is reported to be crumbling, and support for what began as Bagdad's aggressive war is dwindling. For the first time, an Iranian breakthrough is possible.

If Iraq can resist until contested lands dry out after the rainy season, when it will be able to use its armor to better advantage, its military fortunes are likely to change for the better. Yet Iran may prevail in the interim, thus presenting the United States with risks similar to those that have threatened to follow Iraq's bombing campaigns against shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Most likely, Iranian officers and soldiers who are willing to take appalling casualties to end Iraq's invasion would have little stomach for pursuing leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's dream of a fundamentalist Iraq. Most likely, Iran's military limitations, especially in air power, would inhibit a strike against other states of the gulf area. Indeed, Tehran has publicly drawn distinctions between Iraq and its Arab neighbors.

But the consequences of error in this analysis could be stupendous. Nightmares include a fundamentalist government in Bagdad that would be allied to the ayatollah, severe military damage to oil facilities in the Persian Gulf area, and a bid by Moscow to take advantage of turmoil--especially to gain a permanent political foothold in Iran.

The United States has no simple course, in large part because it enjoys little influence in Bagdad and virtually none in Tehran. But passively waiting to see what happens is no course, either. In its planning, Washington should consider the consequences of separating its concern for Persian Gulf security from reliance on the regime of Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein.

The United States must also be able to measure a crisis policy devoted to the security of the gulf's Arab states against competing long-term interests--no simple matter. These include opposing Soviet encroachment on Iran and keeping open the Western lines of communication to Tehran. Despite its efforts now to keep Iraq from going under, Moscow knows that Iran is the region's strategic prize; in Washington that understanding fades in and out. Only by immediately bringing the crisis in the gulf area to the center of Washington thinking will there be a chance to grapple with complex dilemmas in the crush of events.

At the Middle East's other pole, the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak is facing its most severe internal crisis. A recent mutiny by security police points to deeper trouble in a society beset by economic calamity. The fall in oil prices is costing the country oil revenues, remittances from workers in the Persian Gulf area, and Suez Canal tolls. Budget pressures in the United States threaten the foreign aid on which Cairo depends. And Egypt's secularism faces subsurface challenge from its own brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

Again, the stakes are immense. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is the principal guarantee against another round of war in the region. Productive relations between Egypt and Israel are critical to any peace process. Having unfettered transit rights through Egyptian military bases is the linchpin of the U.S. strategic position in the Persian Gulf area. Losing those rights at the height of a gulf crisis would send Pentagon planners into apoplexy.

The recipe for U.S. action should include lowering its profile, symbolized by more than 1,000 employees of the Agency for International Development. It should include appointing a U.S. ambassador with stature in the Middle East and access to the White House. And it should include swift reduction of the burden of Egyptian debts to the U.S. Treasury.

Today's Middle East difficulties point up the Reagan Administration's lack of wisdom in failing during this past year to provide serious support for Arab-Israeli peace efforts. However slight the chances for this diplomacy, they disappeared when Washington decided to keep its political distance.

In the absence of a viable peace effort, Egypt is deprived of a safety valve against pressures from many of the government's opponents. The Administration hits a stone wall when it asks Congress to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. And the Soviet Union, which last year cracked the ring of its diplomatic isolation from the Persian Gulf area, waits to see what it can gain from circumstance and American nonchalance.

The U.S. government rarely deals effectively with more than one foreign crisis at a time. It must be wise in setting priorities. Central America may be tomorrow's challenge. The Middle East is at stake today.

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