Unless we are very lucky, or very skillful at diplomacy, the United States is heading toward a major military confrontation with Iran.
It may be slow in coming. But in order to destroy the Iranian threat to Persian Gulf shipping, the United States might have to engage the Islamic republic's forces in a large-scale naval and air battle. Or, in order to make Tehran accept a cease-fire in its war with Iraq, we may have to use force to embargo Iranian oil shipments and arms imports.
Such a confrontation may not be avoidable. As every American has good reason to know, our values and those of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his revolutionary elite are all too different. Further, it is difficult for a man who claims to be inspired by God to admit that he is deterred by the U.S. Navy.
Still, it is in America's interest to use every effort to push Iran toward peace without further fighting. Our quarrel is with Khomeini and not Iran's people; they will be around long after his revolution has faded into the obscurity it deserves. Further, we face the constant risk that a major fight with Iran might force it into some kind of arrangement with the Soviet Union.
In practice, we need to act now to establish the kind of "carrot and stick" policy that will offer Iran a face-saving road to peace without implying American weakness.
The first such "carrot" should be for the President or the secretary of state to define U.S. objectives far more clearly, and in a way that Iran can understand without feeling threatened. Washington needs to reiterate, at the highest levels, that it wants an end to the war that does not penalize either side, and that it will not tolerate any Iranian or Iraqi violation of the territory of a third state or of free passage through international waters.
Another "carrot" should be to clearly reassert what the United States means by "neutrality." Senior American officials should state that the United States will not let Iraq drag it directly into the land conflict, or directly into a role of supporting the Baghdad government. They need to make it unambiguously clear that the United States will enter the naval and air conflict only to defend its interests and those of friendly states in the southern gulf. They need to emphasize that Washington will not support the hopeless anti-Khomeini movement outside Iran, and that it wants to preserve strong and viable nationalist regimes in power in both Iraq and Iran as a buffer against Soviet expansion into the gulf. Further, Washington needs to tell both governments that it does not intend to maintain an enhanced military presence in the region once a cease-fire is reached--that it wants to see a region capable of managing its own security in peace.
Senior U.S. officials must get the word out that Washington continues to condemn aggression in any form, and that it sees Baghdad as being heavily to blame for starting the war. They should tacitly support the idea that the southern gulf states should give Iran war recovery aid--an indirect form of reparation. They should begin to discuss U.S. economic aid and trade options for the post cease-fire period. Washington and its friends in the southern gulf have every reason to reach out to the Iranian people and help them build a sound economy. The only way we will ever find true moderates to deal with in Iran is to give them a base that they can use to achieve power once Khomeini is gone.
But the key "carrot" should be U.S. willingness to compromise on the U.N. cease-fire proposal in any way that still protects its interest and those of its friends and the people of Iraq. The United States should at least leak the fact that it can accept Iran's proposal to alter the Security Council cease-fire proposal to have the investigation into war guilt begin at the same time as the cease-fire, and allow a reasonable delay in Iran's retreat to its 1975 borders.
Accommodation alone, however, will only be seen as weakness. Washington will need to use "sticks" in the form of both covert and public action. The best covert "stick" would be to ask France to quietly give added military help to Iraq in the form most likely to force Iran to agree to a cease-fire. Such help could consist of providing the Iraqi air force with precise targeting data and the sophisticated strike planning it needs to be more effective in its attacks on Iran's refineries, power plants and other critical targets. At the same time, it could be used as a lever to pressure Iraq to avoid strikes on population targets, food supplies and naval targets in the gulf--except for those owned by Iran or under charter to it.