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U.S., Israel Realign Mideast Game, but Will Players Go by the Rules?

November 14, 1986|AVIGDOR HASELKORN | Avigdor Haselkorn is a senior analyst with Eaton Corp. in Los Angeles, and has written and consulted extensively on Middle Eastern and Soviet affairs.

Without a doubt, the timing of Israel's nuclear "bomb-in-the-closet" policy was influenced by the sad experience of the Iran-Iraq war. Israeli leaders watched in horror as the Iraqis used chemical weapons on the battlefield and as both sides bombarded each other's cities with surface-to-surface missiles. Both former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke of the next war in the region as totally different from past wars for both Arabs and Israelis.

Israel chose to respond to the growing muscle and role of radical regimes in the Middle East by adopting a new deterrent posture, signaling a greater willingness to turn to nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the United States also was engaged in seeking new approaches to stability in the region. It became increasingly evident that "the Libyan solution" would not be applied in the case of either Syria or Iran. Syria's military capabilities, as well as its tight link to the Soviet Union, tended to constrain America's ability to exert military pressure on Damascus. And a forceful response to Iran's outrages, including blatant sponsorship of terrorist acts against U.S. interests, would push Tehran into the Soviet embrace.

Relying on Iraq to contain Iran had become unrealistic. If anything, the deterioration in Iraq's position in the war added to the urgency of Washington's dilemma. A whole array of ill-fated consequences would follow if Iran emerged victorious. Yet America's ability to influence Iran remained severely limited.

Other concerned states could not sit idly by while Iran gathered strength. Consequently, beginning in late 1985, Iran had to contend with the effects of what its leaders termed the "oil conspiracy": a conscious effort by certain producers to, in Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi's words, "damage Iran's ability to continue the struggle" by flooding the oil market and driving prices down. In fact, it could be argued that the move was prompted by the Persian Gulf states' perception of Washington's inability to contain Iran.

Meanwhile, certain Iranian figures had come to realize that winning the war would run contrary to the interests of virtually all concerned parties except Tehran itself. Moscow is obliged by treaty to support Iraq, yet has been reluctant to alienate Iran. Last month, however, the Soviet ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Felix Soldatov, spoke of providing arms to Iraq as a necessity under the defense agreement. This was read as a reminder that an Iranian victory would not be tolerated. Even Syria, Iran's staunch ally, has warned Tehran repeatedly against pursuing the war deep into Iraqi territory.

Washington believes that some in Iran's leadership have concluded that continuation of the war is not in the Islamic Revolution's best interests; instead of assisting in exporting the revolution, the war has kept Iran isolated if not contained. And even as the external threat to the revolution subsides, the ongoing conflict could lead to internal unrest.

Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, for example, was quoted in Le Monde on Oct. 25 as saying that if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein stepped down, Iran would not challenge his country's unity and integrity and would be prepared to negotiate with the new Baghdad regime "even if it was pro-American." More recently, Prime Minister Moussavi said that Iran "strongly believes in negotiations, consultations and exchanges of views; we are not a warmongering country in the region." In August, under Rafsanjani's orders, Iran's oil minister offered to his Saudi counterpart a plan to boost oil prices that exempted Iraq from the agreed quota.

To be sure, many of the signs of change in the Iranian position are tentative if not transitory. To the extent that a "moderate vs. hard-liner" debate is under way in Iran, the responsiveness of the factions to external stimuli will be further constrained. Indeed, under present-day circumstances in the Middle East, the discovery of an American link may even bring the demise of the "moderates" altogether. Yet apparently Washington decided that the time was right to offer Tehran some "carrots" in a bid to reopen channels of communication between the two countries.

In making its move the United States of course seeks to promote its paramount goal of blocking Soviet inroads into Iran, to prevent the emergence of a southern tier of "anti-imperialist" nations friendly to Moscow. Nevertheless, the timing may have been influenced by a sense of urgency in the need to contain the war with Iraq and to stop Iran's sponsorship of terrorism--and to gain the release of the American hostages.

Be that as it may, the recent overtures also imply that Washington recognizes its lack of credible policy alternatives in the area. In fact, Washington's move differs little from the French quest for Syrian "cooperation" in stopping the recent terrorist attacks in Paris--a move that enraged the Reagan Administration.

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