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Iran, Iraq: Engulfing a World Issue

September 06, 1987|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — The latest round of Persian Gulf fighting provokes more outside interest and more potential trouble. As Iran and Iraq, the major combatants, expand their war into the shipping lanes of the gulf, Saudi Arabia and the Arab gulf sheikdoms, the Europeans and the Japanese--and especially the United States--are increasingly at risk.

This "internationalization" of the Iran-Iraq War is in no way accidental. As Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Nizar Hamdoon, said in an interview, "We are pursuing two goals now. Putting pressure on Iran and getting better results from the international community."

Since the war began going badly for Iraq some five years ago, Baghdad's goal has been to gain allies against its more fanatic, if not more formidable, Iranian foe. And over the years they have scored some notable successes. Once money began to run out, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait stepped in and sold their own oil "on account" for Iraq. For a while, France stepped up arms sales including delivery of French bombers equipped with Exocet air-to-ship missiles, the same weapons that proved so deadly when used by Argentina against Great Britain in the Falklands war. And the Soviet Union has always been there, providing Iraq with the bulk of its arms and with assurances that they would never let this Arab socialist regime fall to the Islamic fundamentalists of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Despite this impressive array of backers, Iraq for the past five years has only managed to hold on. Iraqis are outnumbered 3-1 by the more populous Iranians, out-motivated by the revolutionary fervor of the Khomeini regime and, according to even the most sympathetic Western observers, repeatedly out-generaled by the rag-tag successors to the imperial armed forces of the shah.

Moreover, the Baathist regime in Baghdad doesn't easily win friends. It is brutal in its origins and in its conduct. "Baghdad is unique", says one self-described State Department veteran of "sandy places"; "it's kind of an Arab East Berlin." Another State Department Arabist describes peacetime Baghdad as "a place where people stand around and hit each other over the head with 2-by-4s."

Iraq's wartime behavior leaves even more to be desired. Baghdad has unleashed chemical weapons for the first time since World War I. And some one-time critics of Israel's 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor now believe Israel may have prevented an Iranian Hiroshima.

Even among Arab gulf states, Iraq is often the choice as lesser of two evils. Kuwait, singled out by Iran for excessive support of Iraq, was not so long ago the object of Baghdad's irredentist designs. When they became independent in 1961, the Kuwaitis had to call upon their former protectors, the British, for defense against an Iraqi invasion. The Iraqis, it seemed, considered Kuwait an extra province.

But the major reason Iraq has been unable to enlist the wholehearted support of the international community is best explained by the insistence of some now-disputed Reagan Administration appointees. Former National Security Advisers Robert C. McFarlane and Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter repeatedly emphasized, in testimony about their secret dealings with Tehran, that Iran was and remains the "great strategic prize" in the region.

While other governments have not been as hyperbolic in terms of Iran, they too have sought secret and not-so-secret ties to Tehran. Saudi Arabia's outrage over the recent Iranian riot in Mecca stems in part from Tehran's betrayal of secret understandings governing behavior of its pilgrims there. The Saudis and the Iranians have worked, if not in collusion, at least along parallel lines to boost the worldwide price of oil. France, too, has for the past year attempted to balance its support for Iraq with conciliatory gestures toward Iran. Even the Soviets, despite understandable vigilance against the spread of Islamic fervor to Muslims within their own borders, have repeatedly courted the Khomeini regime.

Baghdad is acutely sensitive to this continuous wooing of Iran. According to informed Iraqis, the timing of the latest round of attacks in the gulf was dictated in part by pique, following the high-level reception given Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Larijani in Western Europe and at the United Nations. "This nobody was being treated like royalty," complained one Iraqi diplomat.

Operating against what they perceived as insufficient international support and too much interest in Iran, the Iraqis had long been in need of a new friend. Thanks to Kuwait and the U.S. Department of Defense, they got one. Jumping at the chance to move between Kuwaiti shipping and Iranian attacks, the Pentagon engineered a new U.S. role--one pleasing to Iraq. Witness Hamdoon's declaration: "We want the U.S. fleet right where it is."

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