WASHINGTON — Each day brings new reports of dangerous military adventures in the Persian Gulf. With more than 60 U.S. and allied warships steaming in and around a major war zone, no wonder public interest has been piqued. Moreover, one of the two combatants, Iran, has made it clear, often verbally and increasingly by its actions, that the worst may be yet to come.
Without denying the drama of, say, a battle between U.S. helicopter gunships and Iranian speedboats, the real story so far lies not in military confrontation--though that may come later--but in political change. As James A. Placke, former deputy assistant secretary of state puts it, "For the first time U.S. policy is to end the Iran-Iraq War."
Placke should know. In 1984, during the last major flare-up in the gulf, he was instrumental in constructing a policy that kept the United States on the sidelines while de-escalating the shooting war. Now, however, he says, "The best way to protect U.S. interests is to end the war."
But to achieve this, the Reagan Administration has quietly but dramatically changed its role in the region. The first sign of this change was the Administration's full-court press at the United Nations earlier this year to gain acceptance of a cease-fire resolution. As one State Department veteran commented, "It's a pretty sorry spectacle to watch this Reagan gang try to gain favor at the U.N. after beating up on them for six years."
Yet despite the unanimous support given to the United States, the U.N. effort has had virtually no impact on the war. The Administration was reduced to ineffective pleading with Iraq to grant more time before declaring it would not obey a one-sided or partial cease fire.
The Administration's next step has been to seek a U.N.-imposed arms embargo on Iran. But two of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council--the Soviet Union and China--have evinced little interest in going so far. In the wake of the arms scandal, the Soviets have been able to make important headway in Iran at the expense of the United States. And China has become Iran's principal, and not-so-secret, supplier of weapons.
The Administration turned to the United Nations because, as one State Department official said, "It's the only game in town." As Iraq's refusal to heed U.S. entreaties demonstrates, the Administration has scant influence in Baghdad. And if the White House has learned anything from its arms-for-hostages dealings, it is that the United States is probably better off not trying to negotiate anything with Tehran.
It was arms-for-hostages negotiations that got the United States into this predicament in the first place. For seven years, the United States was content with expressing hopes for a speedy, peaceful resolution. Iraq's use of chemical weapons to blunt Iran's use of human-wave attacks has conjured up unpleasant images of futile World War I-style combat. Unlike the carnage that has resulted from dozens of other regional conflicts that have flared throughout the decade--which the United States has also piously deplored--the Iran-Iraq War takes place at a strategic crossroads. Vulnerable Persian Gulf states are the repository of the world's major oil reserves. Politically fragile, they are sensitive to the threat of Iranian-style fundamentalism as well as more conventional Iraqi blandishments.
The Iraqi threat disappeared as a result of the failure of Iraqi arms at the beginning of the war. The specter of a triumphant Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sent the Arabs scurrying to the side of Iraq. Billions of dollars were sent to Baghdad to help staunch the Iranian attack. Despite fervent pleas from the Arabs--and some lobbying from Arabists within the State Department--Washington turned a deaf ear to suggestions of direct aid to Iraq.
Instead, the Reagan Administration worked to bolster gulf Arab states--notably Saudi Arabia, which was provided with such advanced weapons as F-15 fighter-bombers and AWACS early warning aircraft. At the same time, the Reagan Administration conveniently overlooked the fact that Iraq had started the war and pressed friendly governments to halt arms sales to Iran.
But a year ago this week, just as Secretary of State George P. Shultz was at the United Nations touting the success of his efforts to deny Iran weapons (code named "Operation Staunch"), word began to leak about secret U.S. arms sales to Iran. For the ensuing nine months, attention in Washington understandably focused on the domestic implications of the arms-for-hostages deal and its corollary, the contra diversion. But the impact of the scandal was also being felt in the Persian Gulf area. Arab States were dismayed to discover that the United States was working both sides of the street. And the Iranians were clearly emboldened.