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U.S. Must Keep Balance Between Iran, Iraq

January 21, 1987|ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN | Anthony H. Cordesman is the author of several books on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

In all the current furor over U.S. policy toward Iran and Iraq, the focus has been on one or two relatively minor incidents, as if they were proof or harbingers of a policy shift. In fact, there is, and has been, a fairly broad bipartisan consensus on what U.S. policy should be, both toward Iran and Iraq and in the larger regional context. The real business of 1987 is translating the principles of this consensus into action--but only action that reflects an understanding of the limits of our influence in the region.

This policy consensus gives priority to ending the Iran-Iraq war with neither country emerging dominant over the other. Then every effort must be made to restore their stability and security. Both nations are vital to Western interests as buffers between the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf, but only if they remain strong, independent states.

Iraq, originally the aggressor, is now under threat of invasion. U.S. policy must be shaped to reduce the risk of an Iranian victory. Yet directly supporting Iraq with weapons or other major assistance would not be beneficial. U.S. support must be indirect.

At the same time, we must make efforts to open lines of communication to Iran and to strengthen the southern gulf states. In practice this means using every political means to limit arms shipments to Iran, it means providing quiet intelligence support and indirect economic aid to ensure that Iraq can hold out until a peaceful settlement of the war, and it means providing political support for every serious peace initiative.

The immediate expectations of U.S. policy must be modest. Iran is only beginning its process of revolution; we cannot hope to create a stable and friendly relationship with Iran for many years to come. Efforts to maintain and expand communications with Iran's present and future governments should be limited to political and economic contacts, and these should be structured to act as incentives toward peace and economic development. There is a real need to keep lines of communication open to Iran's ruling elite as well as to the various factions that may come to power. While we should make clear our support for every move toward moderation, we must focus on building a relationship of economic mutual interest as a substitute for common political and social goals.

The United States cannot hope to make Iran or Iraq a military ally. Neither state is likely to act as any kind of proxy for Western security interests in the gulf. The most that we can hope for is that Iranian and Iraqi economic ties to the West can be rebuilt and strengthened to the point where these ties dominate political attitudes and actions.

The United States will not benefit from arms sales to either state. This is an area where our European allies can accomplish far more by ensuring that Iraq can survive, that neither state has to depend on the Soviet Union for arms after the war, and that a superpower rivalry does not develop as part of an Iranian-Iraqi arms race.

Of course, the United States is--and will continue to be--in a strategic rivalry with the Soviet Union for power and influence in the gulf. The Soviets have made serious overtures for "good neighborly relations" with Iran, and they have been assisting Iraq militarily. But they are handicapped by problems with their own ethnic Muslim Asians and by their years of war against the Muslim moujahedeen in Afghanistan. And Iraq is still bitter about an attempted Communist Party coup a decade ago.

Given this, the best U.S. hope for stability in the larger gulf region lies in building the Gulf Cooperation Council states into a significant and unified political and military deterrent. We must redouble our efforts to strengthen those states and their military ties to Saudi Arabia, the only southern gulf state large enough and strong enough to underpin a regional military effort.

Beyond the risks inherent in an Iranian victory lies the threat of Iranian efforts to limit the gulf states' oil production after the war--plus the threat from Soviet-backed radical states in the Red Sea, and the long-term threat of a Soviet victory over Afghanistan's freedom fighters. Here the United States stands alone as the only nation capable of ensuring the flow of oil through the gulf. We must continue to strengthen the U.S. Central Command and its power-projection capabilities in the region.

The West, particularly the United States, has no incentive to overreact or to try to buy either Iranian or Iraqi support. It can afford to wait and to act in its own interests. Any adventurism by the Soviet Union is as likely to backfire as to succeed as long as Iraq and Iran survive as independent states and can turn to the West for economic ties.

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