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Beyond the Bluster, Iran Can Be Coaxed Into Peace

September 27, 1987|SHIREEN T. HUNTER | Shireen T. Hunter is the deputy director of Mideast studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.

The speech given on Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly by the president of Iran, Ali Khamenei, was preceded by great anticipation. It was expected to clarify Iran's position on peace with Iraq and on U.N. resolutions designed to bring that about. Khamenei's trip to the United States--the first by an Iranian leader since the fall of the Shah--also presented the opportunity, through numerous scheduled media appearances, for Iran to present its case directly to Westerners.

But then, just as Khamenei was arriving in New York, events in the Persian Gulf changed both the thrust of his speech and the tone of his media campaign. The U.S. Navy seized an Iranian ship that reportedly was laying mines in the gulf. Several Iranian crewmen were killed, and Khamenei's address to the United Nations reflected his government's rage. Where a somewhat conciliatory tone had been expected, Khamenei was harsher than ever in castigating the United States--"the arch-Satan." Thus ended Khamenei's chance for promoting Iran's point of view on the war.

This latest incident also provided the United States with more ammunition in its efforts to get the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo against Iran.

Tactically, the United States gained and Iran lost. Yet the United States is no closer to--indeed, may be further from--reducing tensions in the gulf and influencing a peaceful resolution of the Iran-Iraq war.

Despite the harsh rhetoric used against the United States, however, the Iranian president did reiterate his government's position that Iran will agree to a cease-fire and peace negotiations, provided that Iraq is labeled as the aggressor in the 7-year war--a fact that only Baghdad contests. In substance if not in tone, Khamenei's speech was in line with the more flexible stand that Iran adopted several weeks ago. The window of opportunity that this flexibility created remains open. Yet it will mean little unless the United States is prepared to re-examine its attitude.

Perhaps because of understandable American bitterness toward Iran, the Reagan Administration finds it difficult to take seriously a move toward peace that gives Iran any satisfaction or even the appearance of a moral victory. Washington will accept the creation of a so-called impartial commission to ascertain responsibility for starting the war, but that can't happen until Iran stops fighting.

The fear is that, should the United Nations find that Iraq was the aggressor, Iran would demand that Iraq be punished. This is a possibility, but the craft of diplomacy exists precisely to test such propositions before nations make commitments.

The alternative is hardly more attractive or easier to achieve. The United States will press the Security Council to impose an arms embargo and other sanctions against Iran. This would require at least the abstention of the Soviet Union and China, permanent members of the council with the right of veto. Even if sanctions are voted, it is unlikely that they would force Iran to accept a humiliating peace. What bombs did not achieve in North Vietnam is unlikely to be achieved by embargo in Iran. This is especially so because of the Soviets' interest in gaining influence in Iran. China also would have an incentive to cheat, precisely to counter the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the danger of a U.S.-Iranian military clash in the gulf persists, especially because Iraq continues to try to provoke it. Tehran is extremely concerned about American intentions and the possibility of an attack, which could be devastating. Thus it has responded to the U.S. naval presence in the gulf not by attacking ships, but by the indirect action of laying mines. During his visit to New York, President Khamenei stressed that Iran is not seeking a confrontation with the United States.

But the costs of a major clash are not all on one side. The United States would suffer heavy political damage in the Islamic world, where Iran has skillfully presented U.S. actions in the gulf as hostile to Islam.

More important, a major U.S.-Iranian confrontation would inevitably provide the Soviets with opportunities to expand their influence in Iran and thus in the Persian Gulf. Iran would have no choice but to turn to the Soviets. Even if it didn't, the Soviets would have to calculate the costs of letting the United States attack a country on the Soviet border without their taking any action at all.

Viewed in this light, it is clear that the more reasonable alternative for the United States is to explore seriously the possibility of ending the war by granting Iran's principal demand--identifying Iraq as the aggressor--as part of a package deal that would forestall further demands. The Administration should also explore the possibility of an informal truce, already hinted at by Iran, and even the establishment of an international naval force to safeguard freedom of shipping.

In short, changes in Iranian policy may create a chance to reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf and, in due course, to end the Iran-Iraq war. The most immediate tactical question for the United States is whether it wants to reduce tension or, from anger, teach Iran a lesson.

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