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Reagan's Iranian Dealing Is a Truly Miserable Affair

November 13, 1986|ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN | Anthony H. Cordesman, an authority on military and internal-security developments in the Middle East, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

It will be months before we know just how much the United States has suffered from the Tehran fiasco. It is already clear, however, that the disclosure of U.S. willingness to barter arms for hostages has done serious damage to American national security on a global basis.

First, it has again undercut America's reputation. The very fact that the White House would negotiate with Iran without coordinating with the State Department, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community is damaging enough. The fact that it would negotiate with Iran from a posture of weakness, and one where the timing of its arms trades for hostages seems suspiciously geared to giving the President favorable publicity just before a key election, is devastating.

The Tehran fiasco also threatens the West's energy supplies. More than half of all the world's oil reserves are still in the Persian Gulf area, and the control of these reserves may well be shaped by the outcome of the Iran-Iraq war. This war is now a delicately balanced conflict in which any shift in favor of Iran could make one of the world's most dangerous and radical regimes the dominant power in the gulf. We have sought to prevent this catastrophe by persuading our friends and allies not to ship arms to Iran, but we are now exposed as having been willing to trade arms for hostages and for having secretly "tilted" toward Iran.

This disclosure discredits our efforts to reduce European and Asian arms sales. It discredits all our efforts to persuade the southern gulf states and other Arab governments to stand firm in their support of Iraq, rather than make concessions to Iran. It weakens any effort to persuade them to buy oil from other states, and to persuade the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to stand firm in the face of pressures to make special concessions to Iran. Our actions will almost prolong the Iran-Iraq war, and may even tilt it in Iran's favor.

Our actions have also helped the Soviet Union, occuring at a time when Moscow has just signed a new trade agreement with Iran and is sending back its economic advisers. It is successfully hedging its bets against an Iranian victory with none of the disastrous backlash that has characterized the U.S. effort. This takes on special strategic importance because it is becoming clearer that the Soviet Bloc desperately needs some long-term source of energy imports and has far more serious interests in expanding Soviet influence in the gulf.

All of the friendly and moderate regimes in the Middle East now must deal with a situation where the United States has tacitly shown that it can be blackmailed by Shia Muslim extremists in Lebanon--the most radical and hostile movement in the Levant. While Israel encouraged Washington to begin its Tehran negotiations, it is all too clear that Israeli advice on Lebanon is no better now than it was in 1982, and that the end result has been an international scandal that now will make it far more difficult to establish any stabilizing talks between the United States and Iran. Israel, like its moderate Arab neighbors, will have to live with a greatly strengthened Party of God and with a Syria that is now far more confident that it has little to fear by exploiting extremists in Lebanon.

The Tehran fiasco has also encouraged global terrorism. It is one thing to keep a U.S. line of communication open to Tehran--something that could have been done simply by exploiting Iran's dependence on private commercial ties to America. But the Reagan Administration has demonstrated, just as did President Jimmy Carter, that America lacks the resolve to take any firm line on terrorism. Whatever other nations now say in public, none of our major allies and friends will take U.S. resolve seriously for the rest of the life of the Reagan Administration. The President may have a Teflon coating at home, but his reputation is now badly stained overseas.

Finally, the Tehran fiasco threatens every American traveling and working overseas. It is important to understand that there was nothing humanitarian about the deal with Iran. If a U.S. Administration is willing to trade a planeload of arms or make any other major concession to rescue a single hostage, the end result is to create a strong incentive to take more U.S. hostages whenever any group wants to put pressure on Washington or win concessions. Further, the clear message to every other Western nation is to ignore any tough words from America and to cave in. The United States has not only threatened its own citizens, it has threatened those of every other nation potentially vulnerable to blackmail.

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