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U.S. Tilts Toward Iran to Gain Power in Mideast

December 07, 1986|David Lamb | David Lamb covered the Middle East for The Times from 1981 to 1985. He is author of "The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage," forthcoming from Random House.

Two years ago, Iraqi officials in Baghdad seemed convinced they had finally won an undeclared ally in President Reagan, and that the United States was moving from a position of neutrality on the Iran-Iraq War to one of covert support for Iraq.

Reagan had sent two senior envoys to Baghdad--Donald H. Rumsfeld and Richard W. Murphy--and both had told the Saddam Hussein regime that Washington would not consider it in its interests if Iraq lost the war. Although U.S. military and financial backing was out of the question, Iraqi officials thought they had won a significant diplomatic victory, because both Washington and Moscow have long considered Iran more important, strategically and economically, than Iraq.

"Before we had this dialogue," said Ismat Kittani, who was then Iraq's deputy minister of foreign affairs and is now ambassador to the United Nations, "our impression was that the United States did not really want to see the war end, that as long as it didn't spread, Washington would have been willing to see the war drag on because it hoped to establish influence eventually with a post-Khomeini government. But unless something happens to change our minds, we really believe now that the Reagan Administration understands our position."

Now, a great deal has happened to make the Iraqis change their minds, with the revelations that Washington's major Middle East ally, Israel, has been supplying Iran with technical and military assistance for years and that the United States has secretly sent several shipments of arms and spare parts to the Khomeini regime. In justifying the shipments and contacts with so-called moderates in Tehran, Reagan voiced hope that the U.S. actions could help lead to a negotiated settlement of the six-year-old Iran-Iraq War--with nearly 1 million dead, it is the costliest war in modern Middle East history.

The President spoke as though the weapons had been delivered to a palatable element within Iran rather than to the government itself. Reagan insisted that the amount of arms had been small, implying that they would not tip the military balance. True enough. They would merely ensure that the killing could continue. And that underscores a sad truth: The world has learned to live with the Iran-Iraq War. Despite dire early predictions, the war has not had a serious impact outside the gulf region. Some countries, such as the United States and Israel, have even profited from it.

The President's expressed hope of encouraging a settlement ignores the historical realities of the belligerents and that the United States has used the war to expand its influence in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. Whatever recent explanations have been offered, Washington's position is still best articulated in the words of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger: "The ultimate American interest in the war (is) that both sides should lose."

By capitalizing on the moderate Arabs' fear of Iran's radical Islamic movement, the United States has been able to speed the militarization of the oil-producing area. It has sold billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia and the gulf sheikdoms, gained access to some Arab military bases in a regional "emergency" and even persuaded the xenophobic Saudis to begin collaborating with U.S. intelligence agencies. As a result, the United States--despite Kuwait's purchase of some Soviet weaponry--has emerged from the post-Pahlavi period in Iran as the biggest arms merchant and most important foreign power in the world's richest oil storehouse.

Israel's support of Iran appears clear-cut. It considers Iraq a more serious threat to its security than Iran and dismisses Hussein's professed move away from wild-eyed radicalism. The Israelis believe it is to their advantage for the war to drag on, draining the resources of both combatant countries and keeping two unsavory leaders removed from the arena of international adventurism. Surely the thought of having Iran and Iraq at peace, with a combined 2.5 million men under arms, is unsettling in Tel Aviv.

Both Israel and the United States harbor hope--unrealistic as it may be--that the successor to Iran's octogenarian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will turn Iran in a more sane direction. But, after seven years, Iran's revolution has become institutionalized. The opposition is living in Europe and the United States; the military has been purged of the shah's loyalists, and the middle and upper classes have lost their voice as well as their strength. Many Iran-watchers believe there is not much moderation left to encourage. They also question Reagan's expressed hope that a settlement is possible under the prevailing condition.

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